‘A Pretty Scary Moment’: Dissident Chinese Students Say George Washington University Is Failing Them
Last month, global protests unfurled in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress. Dissenters around the world called for dignity, freedom, and an end to “zero COVID” in China. At George Washington University (GWU), an anonymous group of Chinese students joined the protests, continuing their monthslong campus campaign against the CCP and its censors.
Because of the very real potential for reprisal against the students and their families both at home in China and here in the United States, their anonymity is vitally important—and closely guarded. But while they were posting flyers recently, a man approached them, spoke to them in Chinese, demanded that they identify themselves, and pulled out his phone and pressed record. Months earlier, some of their fellow students had demanded their university unmask and punish them. Their anonymity, so carefully preserved, remains on a knife’s edge.
On an October evening, in a dorm room near flyers advertising one of the Chinese student groups they had criticized, I met some of these dissenting students for an interview, using pseudonyms. Johnson, Sam, and a student who preferred to be simply called “a Chinese student” hail from mainland China, while Carl is from Taiwan. Alex, an American student, is an ally. We talked about the protests they’ve organized on campus, the global anti-CCP movement, and the disputes over who represents Chinese students abroad. Established, politically active Chinese student groups, usually Chinese Students and Scholars Association chapters, believe they speak for all Chinese students, GWU’s anonymous students say. But they dissent.
What does an individual in an oppressive society owe his fellow citizens when he has the opportunity to speak freely? Does he have a duty to say something, even if it puts him in harm’s way?
To most Americans, this may come across as an abstraction. We all have different ideas about citizenship, what it requires of us, and our obligations to other Americans. But these debates take place within our free society. The parameters, and the stakes, are different. The consequences we fear are usually social, not legal.
To China’s politically dissident students, though, whose travels take them from Barcelona to Brisbane to Berkeley, this is a profound question. Their status as international students abroad grants them temporary reprieve from the CCP’s most blatant and immediate forms of suppression and protections—on paper, at least—for their right to speak freely in their campus and host country. Those liberties, though, come with an asterisk. Chinese students know all too well that their activities remain closely surveilled even overseas.
But does this freedom, poisoned as it may be, ask something of those individuals during their academic careers? For a group of anonymous Chinese students and their allies engaged in an ongoing political campaign on campus, the answer is clear. This year, they’ve found their voice, along with a sense of responsibility and their place in a global fight for freedom.
The Beginnings of a Movement
Criticism of the CCP has been rising in the ranks of censored topics on American campuses. Whether it’s among professors adapting their classrooms to skirt Hong Kong’s oppressive national security law, administrators fearful of alienating lucrative funding or partnership opportunities, or international students worried that basic academic discussions will cause legal trouble at home, there is a growing problem in higher education. This problem comes with global implications: It’s getting a lot harder to talk critically about Xi Jinping, the CCP, and the human rights violations taking place in China.
This shift was on full display at GWU in February when the students launched their first anonymous protest and created a chain reaction across campus. Shortly before the 2022 Beijing Olympics, some of the students posted artwork from Australia-based Chinese artist Badiucao satirizing China’s human rights record and the ethical issues raised by its hosting of the Olympics. If they had intended to prove a point about the climate for China’s critics, it certainly worked.
Sam told me it took less than 24 hours before their peers shared the posters on WeChat. Then “other Chinese students spotted it on WeChat” and “through CSSA or private emails or other school channels they reported it to the provost and president.” Alex added that the posters were also reported to the university’s diversity office, with students claiming they constituted racial harassment.
The anonymous students were frustrated that many of their campus critics singled out only one of the posters, which showed an Olympic curler with a COVID germ, without the context of the group of images also depicting violence against Uyghurs and Tibetans, and suggested that there was a bigoted implication about COVID and China.
Things quickly went downhill. GWU’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) expressed immediate displeasure, calling for the responsible students to be “punished severely.” The posters “insulted China,” the CSSA said, and were “not only trampling on the Olympic spirit” but represented “a naked attack on the Chinese nation.” Not to be outdone, the GWU Chinese Cultural Association, another campus group, called for an investigation into the posters, which they claimed was “misleading and offensive propaganda” outside the “scope” of free speech, and complained that the artwork depicting violence against Uyghurs and Tibetans was offensive “from the perspectives of students who love peace and advocate ethnic unity.”
“People on WeChat mostly denounced the poster,” one of the GWU dissident students said. “It was a landslide. Some people are being nationalistic, some are just following the horde mentality. CSSA thinks they are the leaders of mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese. This is not exclusive to George Washington University, but to all CSSAs in postsecondary education.”
Throughout our conversation, this frustration among the dissident Chinese students
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