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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Overseas Chinese students take over government

A a few days Recently, Ming, a student from mainland China, experienced what she called a “moment of surprise”. For an online seminar on the art of protest, Ming submitted photos of posters denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. The “wow” came when a Chinese classmate posted a sympathetic comment on the submission. “You tend to think that other Chinese students are pro-Communist and pro-Xi Jinping,” said Ming, 20, who has been studying in Britain for three years (like the names of others quoted in this article, which have been changed to hide her identity). “It’s amazing and inspiring to find people who support what you do.”

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Over the past month, other Chinese students on Western campuses have made similar discoveries. They have been meeting on the chat app Telegram and organizing protests against their government. This mostly involves putting up posters, like the one Ming uploaded for the workshop, and posting photos of them to the video and photo-sharing app Instagram.Related posters have appeared on 350 campuses in more than 30 countries, according to Citizen Daily administrators Chinathe Instagram account to which people send sightings.

Among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese studying abroad, such activism is rare. Even rarer are anti-Party rallies held overseas by Chinese citizens. In recent weeks, however, there have been small demonstrations by mainland Chinese — mostly students — in several Western cities. More events are planned, including November 19th in Toronto and December 10th in London.

The trigger for all this was a banner displayed on October 13 on an overpass on one of Beijing’s ring roads. Their red slogan challenged the limits of the pandemic: “I don’t want to lock down; I don’t want to lock down”. I want to be free. ’ But the hardest punch was on Xi Jinping: “School strike, work strike; get rid of Xi Jinping, the dictator and traitor!” Not since pro-democracy unrest in 1989 has a leader been so visibly attacked on a busy road in the Chinese capital. Police quickly pulled down the banner and detained a man believed to be responsible. Censors Online references to the incident were removed and the poster’s social media accounts were disabled.

The presence of the banner must have alarmed the police, who stepped up security in preparation for the five-yearly party congress. After the meeting, Mr Xi will be given a new term as party secretary and military commander in chief (these reappointments were announced on 23 October). Only flattery is allowed.

Control has proven to be much more difficult among Chinese students overseas. Many of the posters that began to appear on Western campuses repeated slogans used by protesters in Beijing. They were brought up by individuals, without direction from any organization, according to several people involved. Students often operate in disguise or at night. Even when they responded online to calls to join demonstrations, they often did so with their faces covered.

One participant was Helen, a 33-year-old from central Henan Province who now lives in Sydney, Australia. In May, she completed a degree in accounting there. When she went out with a Chinese friend to put up posters in the city, she wore a black mask. They feared they might be attacked by Chinese nationalists, “but nothing happened – most of the Chinese witnesses were fine.” Helen was also surprised by the way the poster campaign had developed. “People who support democracy like me are very rare,” she said. “This sport helps people like me find each other.”

The Telegram group is the main forum for poster movement activists in the UK, with around 1,300 members. It’s hard to know how many are mainland Chinese. Even if most of them were, they only make up around 1% of Chinese students in the UK. A demonstration in London on October 29 attracted around 100 people. That’s a lot for protests by mainland students overseas, but probably not enough to alarm China’s leaders.

On campuses abroad, many things are still in favor of the party. The only student organization with widespread influence among mainland Chinese at Western universities is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSASecond). These have close ties to the Chinese diplomatic corps and help propagate the party’s views.Some Chinese are wary CSSAs, worried that they might report those with dissenting tendencies to the Chinese authorities.

The party’s views are also disseminated on WeChat, a multipurpose app used by Chinese students to send messages and share news reports. Mainland students abroad usually keep the same account they use in China. These sites are subject to stricter scrutiny than sites based abroad. A Chinese student studying his final year at Durham University in the UK said it was “very normal” for first-year students from China to “not understand what was going on”. All the information they received came “from the Chinese propaganda system,” she said.

Racism is another obstacle to the spread of liberal values. In a paper published in 2020, academics at Stanford University in California and Sun Yat-sen University in China argued that Chinese students in the United States “are more inclined to support liberal democracy than their Chinese peers.” But anti-Chinese discrimination “significantly reduced” the belief that political reform was desirable among Chinese students in the United States, while increasing their support for authoritarian rule.

Chinese nationalism further complicates matters. Those involved in the poster campaign are as critical of the party as activists from Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. But some of them fear being accused of supporting other movements that many mainland Chinese view as separatist taint. Xiong, a student who took part in the demonstration in London, said he was disturbed by the presence of Hong Kongers. He wondered if they just wanted to be independent. Many Hongkongers would say they just want democracy.

Chinese officials remain concerned. Last year, a researcher at China’s National Defense University lamented the involvement of Chinese students in (unspecified) “threats to national security”. The cases, he wrote in state media, “exposed shortcomings and weak links that still exist in the training of young students, especially overseas students”. He urged diplomats and student groups to step up their “ideological education”.

Now that China has begun to relax some of the harsh measures designed to crush covid-19, such a job may become easier. Chinese students overseas are unhappy with the “zero coronavirus” policy, which makes it difficult for them to visit family. But those involved in the poster campaign insisted their movement was about much more than frustration with coronavirus control.

However, some of them said they did not expect the movement to expand. “As for other Chinese students, they’re not looking” for information about the protests, said a Chinese student in Utah. “They just want to stick to their comfort zone. They’re too scared to understand politics.”

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