Chinese student association at McMaster University loses appeal, remains decertified after report of on-campus talk to consulate

Owen Churchill

A Chinese student association at a Canadian university that was stripped of its club status over concerns it had monitored campus activities for the Chinese government failed on Sunday to reverse the club’s decertification.

Legal counsel representing the student association accused the student government of “biased assumptions”.

Chinese students’ association loses status at Canadian university

The student representative assembly at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, deratified the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) in September following allegations that it had endangered students by leading a campaign to report an on-campus talk by a Uygur activist to the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

The talk in February by Rukiye Turdush was disrupted and filmed by at least one student. Chinese students in a group in the messaging app WeChat said they also supplied photographs of the event to the Chinese consulate, The Washington Post reported at the time.

A statement posted to the CSSA’s official WeChat account following the event called the talk “absurd” and “anti-China”, and said that the consulate had been notified.

But during a tense hearing before the student union government on Sunday evening, the club’s lawyer, Samantha Wu, said it was an individual student – and not the CSSA – who reported the event to the consulate. The CSSA only signed the statement because it believed “an emergency event was occurring”, she said.

“The emergency event was, more specifically, thousands of Chinese students at McMaster experiencing immense emotional distress resulting from this public event,” the club elaborated in written testimony. According to university records, McMasters’ total 2017 student population of 31,800 included more than 2,000 from China.

The CSSA did not intend to “endanger McMaster students or their families in China,” said Wu, arguing that the decision to deratify the club was based on “conjecture, speculation and biased assumptions”.

The student union government rejected the CSSA’s appeal to reinstate its club status, and passed a motion opposing attempts by the Chinese government or the CSSA “to directly or indirectly interfere with political activity on campus”.

Beijing backs ‘patriotic actions’ of students reporting on activist in Canada

Following Sunday’s failed appeal, the McMaster CSSA will remain decertified for a full calendar year, during which it will be denied club privileges such as room booking and access to student union funding.

None of four other student associations that signed the February statement have faced disciplinary action by the student union government.

One of those associations had testified in writing that it had signed the statement at the invitation of the CSSA’s then-president.

That suggested that the CSSA was the party “pushing this forward and really taking charge on the statement”, Joshua Marando, president of the student union, said on Sunday.

Contact with the consulate about the event, he added, posed “a significant risk to students and individuals on campus”.

“We see that risk when we see students who are blatantly fearful, telling us that they don’t feel safe,” said Marando.

Chinese students in Canada report Uygur activist’s talk to consulate

The club declined to be interviewed for this story. Inquiries to Wu, a lawyer at Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn in Toronto, went unanswered.

The affair at McMaster has once again thrust the purview and actions of CSSAs on college campuses around the world into the public spotlight, amid rising concern about the international reach of Beijing’s authoritarianism.

Billy, a Chinese-Canadian student at McMaster who supported the club’s deratification, said that the association’s actions had contributed to a climate on campus in which Chinese students who might have critical views of the Chinese government were discouraged from speaking out.

Stripping the club of its official status was an important symbolic step “in terms of making it clear to the Chinese students who may have dissenting views that … they deserve to be able to hold those views without having their words being reported to the Chinese government,” said Billy, who declined to be quoted by his full name due to concern about possible consequences for family members in mainland China.

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Primarily social clubs, CSSAs offer a host of services, ranging from organising cultural events to providing second-hand marketplaces for the China’s expatriate students, who in many countries significantly outnumber those attending from elsewhere. In the US and Canada, for example, students from China constitute around a third of all international students.

Concerns about the associations’ impact on discourse critical of the Chinese government have grown in recent years as evidence has surfaced of ties between many CSSA chapters and arms of the Chinese government, including its foreign missions and the United Front Work Department, which runs the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) overseas propaganda and influence operations.

A review of the constitutions, mission statements and other literature of dozens of CSSAs across North America found numerous instances of such ties, ranging from the advisory to the financial.

Several associations claimed to enjoy the official approval of the Chinese embassy or consulate. The CSSA at St Louis University in Missouri went a step further, stating in its constitution that it “accepts help and guidance from [the Chinese consulate in Chicago] and keeps in touch with People’s Republic of China’s relevant department[s].”

And in upstate New York, a short hop over the US-Canada border from McMaster University, the CSSA at the University of Rochester prided itself, until recently, on operating “under the management” of the consulate in New York.

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When contacted by the South China Morning Post, the consulate said that the Rochester association’s claim of a subordinate relationship was “inaccurate”, but said that it did provide funding to CSSAs within the consular district “on the basis of application”.

The University of Rochester’s CSSA did not respond to requests for an interview, but in the days following the Post’s enquiries to the Chinese consulate about the nature of its relationship with the association, the group removed from its WeChat profile the reference to a subordinate relationship to the consulate.

The CSSA at another college within the consulate’s district, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in its charter that the club’s treasurer was responsible for “submitting proposals to the New York Consulate General of the People's Republic of China” when the association needed funding.

The perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. A report on an activist’s talk at McMaster University in Canada was reported to the Chinese Consulate in Toronto, eventually resulting in the decertification of the Chinese student association that reported it. Photo: Reuters

Sarah Cook, director of the China Media Bulletin at Freedom House, said that government funding to CSSAs was a matter of concern “given what we know about the way in which economic leverage is used [by the Chinese government] to push certain political agendas and really leverage both Chinese and foreign actors to do the Communist Party’s bidding”.

Beyond money, those serving in leadership roles in the associations could also face other forms of pressure if approached with requests from Chinese foreign missions, said Cook.

“The intimidation, the monitoring, the surveillance and the implicit reprisals that Chinese students are going to face when they get back to China – or their family – if they say no … all of that puts at least as much pressure for them to toe the party line – at least publicly if not privately – as if they’re getting $100 or $500 a semester from the Chinese consulate,” she said.

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