Chinese and Uyghur students clash at Cornell University

Rizwangul NurMuhammad, a Uyghur student at Cornell University, has been vocal for years about her brother’s imprisonment by the Chinese government and the atrocities committed by Beijing against China’s ethnic minority population. When her Chinese classmates mocked and left a campus event last week after she asked a US congresswoman about the Uyghur genocide, NurMuhammad saw the long arm of the Chinese government’s influence at play.

The incident happened on March 10 at a colloquium for the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, where NurMuhammad is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. At the event, NurMuhammad shared details of her brother’s story: He was arrested in 2017, later declared a separatist and has not been heard from since. NurMuhammad later asked the speaker — Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan and a Cornell graduate — about the US government’s lack of sanctions as China continues its campaign of human rights abuses against Uyghurs.

“There is a strong understanding in Congress that something terrible is happening to the Uighurs in China: forced labour, human rights abuses, forced indoctrination,” Slotkin replied, attending the event via Zoom. “Democrats and Republicans actually agree that there are real problems.”

The Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority heavily concentrated in Xinjiang Province and long repressed by the Chinese government, face forced labor, involuntary sterilization and various other human rights abuses.

At Slotkin’s first mention of Uyghurs, dozens of students stood up in the room and walked out, according to a video reviewed by Within the Higher Ed. An unfamiliar voice is heard off screen saying that Chinese students are leaving.

“Almost half of the visitors left. As they walked out, some of us noticed that some were booing and mocking me,” NurMuhammad said. “And I actually heard some of them laughing.”

Now NurMuhammad claims intimidation while Chinese students claim to be the target of xenophobia. And Cornell — which has a strong student population from China — is in the thick of it, trying to resolve a geopolitical conflict distilled on campus.


Slotkin showed her support for NurMuhammad and addressed the issue in a Twitter thread. Also, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican signaled support. But at Cornell, NurMuhammad said, the response has been disappointing. Statements from administration officials have portrayed Chinese students as victims, omitting their names and perspective from emailed statements, she said.

“I expected a better response from Cornell, but it didn’t,” she said. “In the first email, they watered down the genocide into human rights abuses and then defended the intimidating actions of Chinese students, calling it a peaceful protest.”

This email, sent March 11, was one of several shared with Within the Higher Ed by a Cornell student. Written by Matt Hall, director of the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, it emphasized the importance of dialogue and tolerant conversation.

“At the same time, we must also respect that strikes are a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval,” Hall wrote. “As public leaders, we have a duty to encourage peaceful demonstrations, including for those with whom we may disagree. We must also uphold the principles of inclusion when expressing opposition; This includes being respectful and polite to our colleagues and not using social media to portray them as a demographic or in a derogatory way.”

A follow-up email Hall sent out on Thursday morning – shared by the university in lieu of a statement – confirmed the “hurt and division” that occurred in the wake of the event.

“I wish to speak directly to the uniquely vulnerable position faced by our colleague Rizwangul,” Hall wrote. “I apologize for the pain you have experienced and I am sorry if my previous message did not reflect a full appreciation of the complicated dynamic that affects you so personally. no [Cornell Institute for Public Affairs] Students should feel unsafe or unwelcome.”

However, some Chinese students suspect the reason for the strike was more complicated.

Although the strike began as soon as Slotkin mentioned mistreatment of Uyghurs, that wasn’t why the students left, said William Wang, a Chinese student with a master’s degree in public administration and president of the Cornell Public Affairs Society.

“We left today’s colloquium because we felt the atmosphere in the room was extremely hostile toward us, and we didn’t feel we could participate in any meaningful discussion,” Wang said in a letter to the administration of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

He wrote that one student, noting the high proportion of Chinese students in the program, asked Slotkin “whether international students should study public policy in a democratic country rather than in their home country. As hard as I tried not to assume malevolence [sic] As a Chinese international student, I felt uncomfortable being called out, not to mention the fact that the response was also about “Chinese international students” and not the entire international student body that has always been an integral part of the Cornell community was.”

Wang’s letter bears the signatures of dozens of Chinese students at Cornell University.

In an email to Within the Higher EdWang said Chinese students were made to feel unsafe by Slotkin’s remarks and that they left not because of the Uyghur commentary, but because of their mental health.

“The colloquium was supposed to be a career development course, teaching us things related to leadership skills, team building, etc. Instead, we got a biased, xenophobic, Sinophobic, and American extremist representative who spoke at length about how China will become the next threat to the US like the Soviet Union was decades ago,” Wang said via email.

He described the strike as “literally the most peaceful and least threatening form of protest”.

Wang’s letter to leadership, which bears his title as President of the Cornell Public Affairs Society under his signature, has created tensions within the student organization he runs.

Damien R. Sharp, a master’s student in public administration at Cornell University and executive vice president of the Cornell Public Affairs Society, said Wang’s letter to leadership violated the group’s charter by acting independently and with traditions of impartiality. He noted that other board members do not support Wang’s statement.

Sharp also called for reconciliation in an email to Cornell leadership: “The exit of some of our classmates from the room during Thursday’s colloquium and the subsequent email discussions lead me to believe that there may be a need for a safe space for… civil talks are the case,” Sharp wrote. “In the coming days, CPAS will work to hold a town hall to provide a space for students to meaningfully engage in exchange on these issues and will work with the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) administration if so the case should be part. As always, CPAS is committed to serving all students in the CIPA community.”

Chinese influence on US campus

Though Chinese students on US campuses may be thousands of miles from home, they are always within reach of their government, said John Metz, executive director of the Athenai Institute, a political nonprofit focused on expanding China’s influence on US reduce colleges. The group’s efforts include advocating the closure of Confucius Institutes – cultural programs at colleges funded by Chinese government grants – urging universities to disclose their ties to China and protecting students and faculty from efforts to silence criticism of the Chinese government.

“Quite simply, the [Chinese Communist Party] does not see its control at the borders of China. She sees Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students’ and Scholars’ Associations (CSSAs) as proxies for controlling discourse on campuses around the world, with Chinese consulates sometimes directly pressuring these groups to prevent events taking place that affect the criticize Chinese government policies,” Metz said via email. In addition, universities often worry that the takeover of China will affect tuition.

Mertz said he is also working to get universities to “disconnect from entities implicated in the Uyghur genocide and other human rights abuses in China.” These efforts resonate with some students.

At the Catholic University of America, pressure from students establishing an Athenai institute there prompted the administration to investigate its foundation to identify and divest holdings related to human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. The Washington Post Reported August 2020.

Catholic University officials did not respond to a request for comment. Neither officials at George Washington University nor Georgetown University, where students have also pressured administration to take similar action and pushed for divestments of companies known to use Uyghur forced labor. However, students at GWU and Georgetown say universities have been largely silent on the issue of divestment.

“All too often, universities have been unwilling to protect students, particularly Uyghurs, Tibetans and Chinese dissidents who face repression,” Metz said. “We believe that divestment — the systematic elimination of financial dependence on Chinese corporations and Chinese state proxies — will reduce the incentive for universities to side with the oppressors and instead become moral leaders for their communities and for the country to be as a whole.”

Pondering the issue at Cornell, NurMuhammad feels the backlash to her comments extends beyond her campus and threatens the academic environment in the US. She also points to efforts to intimidate her on social media. NurMuhammad doesn’t know if her brother – who she hasn’t heard from since his arrest in 2017 – is alive, but she plans to keep speaking out about his arrest and hopes universities will stop downplaying anti-Uyghur violence. It’s the kind of situation, she suggests, where there’s a clear right and wrong and where neutrality has no place.

“The genocide does not have two sides,” said NurMuhammad.

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