All students are responsible for: …supporting an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, assault, and Sexual Violence; …treating others in a way that does not harm them physically and/or threaten or intimidate them emotionally or mentally.
-McMaster University Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Last week, Rukiye Turdush came to McMaster University to make a presentation on a sombre topic: the arbitrary and indefinite detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in concentration camps in the region that the People’s Republic of China calls Xinjiang.
Unsurprisingly, Turdush is critical of this policy, and rightly so. A group of students from the People’s Republic, however, disagreed with the critical impetus of the talk. They planned in advance to attend and disrupt the talk with shouting and cursing.
One participant, meanwhile, quietly sat and filmed the entire event.
Why film the talk? Having experienced this form of intimidation myself, the not-so-subtle message implied is that recordings of the talk will be provided to the Chinese Consulate. This is not mere speculation on my part: the Washington Post has shown that students were in contact with the People’s Republic of China’s Consulate both before and after the talk.
The Consulate was reportedly interested to know whether any Chinese citizens were involved in the planning of the event, as well as whether any university administrators or other academics were present. The students involved also stated that they intended to “look into” the presenter’s son, who is also a McMaster student.
Disrupting events by speakers with whom one disagrees has unfortunately become the new norm on many university campuses in North America. But in terms of disruptions, this case is really only unique for the sheer horror of what the students were trying to defend: a race-based system of concentration camps.
Yet in the decision to film the event, as well as to coordinate with the PRC Consulate, the students involved crossed a significant red line. Here, the “Western-style” political correctness behind the “no platform” trend meets China-style “political correctness,” enforcing Beijing’s carefully protected orthodoxies abroad.
Filming and providing information to the consulate is an act of intelligence-gathering, as well as a threat, insofar as the intelligence is provided to a dictatorship engaged in crimes against humanity.
Not only the speaker but indeed students and academics in the audience could easily be blacklisted from China, and anyone with family in the PRC could see their family bear the brunt of the authorities’ anger.
If anyone present happened to have a Uyghur relative still in China then mere presence at this talk would be more than sufficient grounds to send their entire family off into the concentration camp system, perhaps never to be heard from again.
However, despite the gravity of these students’ acts, more than a week after the event, there is still no hint of any punishment for the students involved. Rukiye Turdush personally told me that she has asked the university if there will be any repercussions for the students, and has received no answer.
After a few mildly shocked newspaper articles, everyone now seems to have moved on.
Imagine for a moment if a group of white students had done this to Native Americans. Or if a group of Afrikaner students had intimidated indigenous anti-racism activists during the era of Apartheid. Or if a group of German students had during the Hitler years recorded and provided information to the German Consulate on Jewish refugees.
Let’s even imagine that a group of Japanese students had engaged in similar behaviour towards a Chinese student giving a talk on war crimes in World War II. The world would be outraged, and rightly so.
Are international students from China, unlike any other student group in today’s universities, allowed to engage in campaigns of racial hatred, intelligence gathering, and threats against those with whom they disagree?
In contrast to the parallel historical examples of white racism and anti-Semitism provided above, ideologies which we can all join hands in condemning, there sadly remains far too much vacillation in the “Western world” about racism and ongoing crimes against humanity in China today.
In both the North American and Australian contexts in which I have worked, racism is, for obvious historical reasons, perceived as the sole purview of a white majority. This notion and its particular vision of victimiser/victim can complicate discussions of the realities of Chinese racism.
Matters become doubly complicated when this intersects with the ostensibly anti-Orientalist idealisation of China as untroubled by the perennial problems of ‘the West’, widespread in both the popular imagination and academic writings.
For example, as a researcher on PRC nationalism and racism, I have academic colleagues who have expressed to me their discomfort with the idea that there could be racism in China. After all, ethnic identity in Chinese is expressed through the idea of minzu, which is markedly different from the idea of zhongzu as a blood-based race.
Ethnic identity in China, they say, is more open and fluid than the rigid constructions that have plagued us in the West.
That certainly sounds nice, but there really is nothing fluid or open about arbitrarily and indefinitely holding a million people from Turkic minority groups in concentration camps. Nor is there anything fluid or open about shouting down and harassing speakers attempting to raise awareness of these modern-day concentration camps.
All are manifestations of a malignant Han racial supremacism with deep disdain for an “other,” the troubling implications of which are becoming increasingly apparent by the day to anyone willing to face facts.
During my decades of travel in China, countless friends have confided in me that Uyghurs are different: dangerous, natural criminals, disease carriers, prone to terrorist violence, and inherent risks to social stability.
These ideas were already disturbing enough when they were used by interlocutors to argue that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities lived on an earlier stage of evolutionary development behind the Han. And of course, there is disturbingly limited space in both popular culture and academia in China to push back against such racism.
As a result, I have watched with trepidation as these ideas have provided the foundation for the development of an expansive network of concentration camps today in what was to be, just a few years ago, “the China century.”
It is of course disturbing that some students from the PRC, given the opportunity to learn important truths about the PRC government’s behaviour today, choose instead to maintain an information bubble in which any information that is not in the People’s Daily is somehow deceptive slander against an always “mighty, glorious, and correct” Party.
Yet we have truly reached a new level of “disturbing,” now that these students are attempting to intimidate and silence discussion in the Western world of the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
And undoubtedly the single most disturbing aspect of this entire affair is that when faced with this blatant supremacism, the response has been far too weak.
If the McMaster students involved in threatening and providing intelligence on Rukiye Turdush would like to attend a university in which the Communist Party’s crimes are not openly discussed, and wherein they can actively collaborate with the Beijing regime in its wars against the Uyghurs, there are plenty of such universities in China.
Allowing these students who have engaged in racial profiling, intelligence gathering for a foreign government, and intimidation and harassment to continue to study at McMaster without punishment sends the completely wrong message.
And this is a message that students will remember: that this type of behaviour is acceptable, or at least that they will not face any repercussions for it.
If the University truly wants to create an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, fear, and racism, the students involved in this affair must be held responsible for their actions.
Doing so will send the right message, not only to potential future offenders, but also to all Chinese, Taiwanese, Hongkonger, Uyghur, and Tibetan students in the West: we will not allow the persecution that you face at home to follow you here.
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