In recent years, conservative commentators have frequently bemoaned the supposed loss of free speech at Yale at the hands of liberal students. This summer, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens branded Yale protests “Maoist-style struggle sessions.”
His fears are baseless and needlessly sensationalized. A quick perusal of the News’ opinion page or a visit to a Yale Political Union debate proves that conservative and liberal beliefs are traded freely and openly on campus. But a greater threat to free expression remains.
Instead of fretting about the latest campus outrage, commentators should instead worry that China has begun to stifle free speech at Western universities. This summer, amid international coverage of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, China has been mobilizing a propaganda campaign to control campus discourse. At the University of Queensland in Australia, overseas Chinese students physically and virtually attacked Hong Kong natives protesting a proposed extradition bill. Several protestors received death threats and were “doxxed” on Chinese social media. The Chinese consulate in Brisbane subsequently praised the Mainlanders’ “acts of patriotism.”
Now, Beijing’s tentacles of propaganda have reached New Haven. The Chinese Communist Party uses its media and power over Chinese international students to threaten our academic freedom and open discourse.
Consider the case of Nathan Law GRD ’20, a leader of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement who founded and led the pro-democracy party Demosistō. In 2016, he became Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator, but after only nine months, Beijing removed him from office. This year, he begins a masters in East Asian Studies at Yale. Even though the semester has yet to begin, Chinese propaganda organs have already targeted Nathan and set their sights on our campus.
This month, an article titled “He’s a Hong Kong Independence Gang Leader and Instigator of Student Strikes, but Running Away to Study at Yale.” ran in an online site called the “College Daily.” Described by The New Yorker as “The ‘post-truth’ publication where Chinese students in America get their news,” the site portrays Law as a hypocrite who abandoned his fellow protestors to flee to America. A number of English-language memes attempt to turn Hong Kongers against him; one reads, “He is going to Yale. And you are going to jail.” The article is particularly galling in light of the fact that Law was jailed for several months due to his involvement with the Umbrella Movement.
Chinese attempts to threaten and intimidate a Yale student, however, go beyond clumsy slogans. In August, Law began to receive death threats and violent messages on social media referencing the willingness of mainland Chinese students, like those in Australia, to carry out their nation’s political aims. One anonymous commentator sarcastically wrote, “I am sure the patriotic students in America won’t beat you to death.” Another, ostensibly connected to Yale, wrote, “Our Yale group has already started looking for him.”
These attacks are clearly linked to Chinese propaganda, including the College Daily’s article. One netizen wrote, “I can’t believe he fled to America,” echoing their language exactly. Thus, the free speech and livelihood of a Yale student is specifically threatened by malicious Chinese influence.
Earlier this month, a statement purportedly issued by the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale circulated on WeChat, calling for students to “silence” and harass Nathan Law. The statement was fake; the real Association issued a correction, pointing out errors in the logo. But the incident highlights China’s strategy for silencing dissidents on campuses abroad; Beijing incites overseas mainland students and uses financial ties with universities to achieve political goals. In 2017, for example, a Chinese students association at the University of California, San Diego supported by the Chinese consulate protested a visit from the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government subsequently banned students on government scholarships from attending the university.
Now, China is using these strategies at Yale. I spoke to Law to ask him about the growing threat to free speech on campus. He told me, “Chinese state propaganda can mobilize in a powerful way. There’s ideological propaganda that uses nationalism to encourage personal confrontation. There are concrete measures they use to manipulate students, like using visas to ask students to help China’s image. There are multiple ways that the overseas community can be mobilized.”
Yale has always had close connections with China: The first Chinese student to attend any American university, Yung Wing, graduated in 1854. But in recent years, the University has forged deeper connections with universities, organizations and individuals in China through philanthropy and academic partnerships. Law views this with concern: “Undoubtedly, China is a huge country with a lot of talent and funding that universities here want. But we need to understand money coming from China is colored; it comes with purpose, with influence, and with aims that may not be stated when the relationships are built. There is a balance between forming relationships with China and not making concessions on core values of academic freedom.”
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that a Yale professor assisted the Chinese government in collecting genetic data from members of the Uighur minority group, who have been placed in internment camps by the millions. University President Peter Salovey visited China shortly thereafter, but despite student protests and a petition, he did not address Yale’s complicity in the Uighur detentions. Recently, Cambridge University Press temporarily removed articles about the Tiananmen Square massacre and Taiwan from a journal at China’s request. As Yale becomes more dependent on Chinese money and an empowered Beijing becomes bolder in its foreign meddling, will our scholars be permitted to publish research critical of China? Will our administrators be willing to speak out against President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian policies, or will they kowtow to Beijing’s pressure?
Our status as a leading center for research and scholarship is existentially threatened by Beijing’s reach into our campus discourse. Yale must ensure the safety of students from Hong Kong and Taiwan and the free speech of all students. Light and truth cannot exist in a world marked by repression and disinformation.
Isaiah Schrader is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com.