The news of a talk by a Uighur activist spread quickly on campus, ricocheting across WeChat, the Chinese messaging app.
A group of Chinese students at McMaster University, in Ontario, learned that Rukiye Turdush, a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs, was set to deliver a presentation about the mass internment of Muslims in China’s far northwest.
The students were furious that a woman they considered a separatist would be given a platform to speak. So they rallied in a chat group and reached out to a familiar source of guidance: the Chinese government.
As Turdush gave her presentation that afternoon, a student in the audience filmed her, and later shouted at her before storming out.
Students wrote in a WeChat group that they contacted the Chinese Embassy about the event and were told to see whether university officials attended and whether Chinese nationals had organized the talk. They later wrote that they sent photos to Chinese officials.
In the following days, Chinese student groups published a “bulletin report” about Turdush’s talk. The bulletin, which was co-signed by five McMaster student groups, including the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), noted contact with the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.
The incident at McMaster was pieced together using records of a group chat conducted in Chinese and translated by The Washington Post, interviews with three people who attended the event, video footage, and the bulletin.
It offers a vivid example of how Chinese students have grown into a vocal and coordinated force on Western campuses, monitoring and pushing back against speech they deem critical of China. It is of particular note because it is unusual to find written evidence of apparent coordination with officials.
Though student organizing and heated debate are common and important parts of campus life, contact with the Chinese Consulate may cross a line, experts said, and will no doubt renew questions about the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to influence foreign institutions, including universities.
“As with many things involving China, there is a continuum, running from what is acceptable to not acceptable,” said David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
Students rallying around a cause is absolutely acceptable, he said, but coordination with diplomats generally goes beyond normal involvement. “The fact they want to know which academics attend hints at desire to stop academic freedom,” he said.
Multiple calls to the Chinese Consulate in Toronto went unanswered. The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a written request for comment. Reached by phone, two men in the embassy’s education section declined to discuss the incident.
Gord Arbeau, director of communications at McMaster, said the school was aware of the incident but was still looking into exactly what happened.
“We are concerned if anyone felt they would be under surveillance while attending an event on campus,” he said. “This would not be in keeping with our principles of free speech and respectful dialogue that we uphold at McMaster.”
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were more than 140,000 students from China in Canada in 2017.
As the number of Chinese students at foreign universities has grown, educators have expressed concern that student activism carried out with the support or direction of Chinese officials could corrode free speech by making students and scholars, particularly those with family ties to China, afraid to criticize the Communist Party.
This week, more than 10,000 people signed a petition trying to block a Tibetan woman from running for student president at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, because of her pro-Tibetan social media posts. The case was written up in Communist Party-run nationalist media in China.
In 2017, students at the University of California at San Diego, after reportedly consulting with the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, mounted large protests condemning the university for naming as commencement speaker the Dalai Lama — the Tibetan spiritual leader who is considered a separatist and anathema by the Chinese government.
The protests come at a time when the ruling Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has ratcheted up nationalist and ideological education within China, outlawed historical criticism of the party, and moved to purge Western influence from textbooks.
Xi in 2016 called on students studying abroad to serve their country. The same year, the Chinese Education Ministry issued a directive calling for a “contact network” connecting “the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad” and ensuring that they will “always follow the Party.”
There are students who came of age in the Xi era who may see defending government positions and working with officials as natural and necessary, experts said.
“Among some Chinese students who just came from China, they are so used to the government telling them what to do all the time, they need to seek guidance,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
The McMaster incident took place Feb. 11, when a user named “Mr. Shark” shared a picture of a brochure for Turdush’s talk with a large WeChat group of Chinese-speaking students.
People participating in the chat expressed disbelief that their government operated mass detention centers, saying they had not seen Chinese news reports about them. (The centers have been widely covered in international media, but many of these reports are censored in China.)
Other students suggested calling the Chinese Consulate. Mr. Shark, meanwhile, added more than 100 other students to the group chat to bring Turdush’s talk to their attention.
In a conversation with a Post reporter on WeChat, Mr. Shark, who said he is studying engineering and declined to provide more personal details or his real name, said many Chinese students felt that criticism of their country amounted to an attack on themselves.
He said he had no connection to the government and was motivated by a sense of anger. Many of the other students were in fact disappointed that their embassy did not speak up forcefully to condemn Turdush, he said, adding that Chinese students “should rationally express our point of view and let our embassy know this event exists.”
He did not believe freedom of speech on campuses applied to Turdush, he said, because the issue in Xinjiang, the autonomous territory in northwest China where most Uighurs live, has already been “elevated to an ethnic issue.”
“It’s no longer purely an issue about a country or politics,” he said. Turdush “is stirring ethnic hatred.”
When asked whether he thought university campuses should provide a forum for other polarizing issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he had no opinions about politics. He chided a Post reporter, who is of Chinese descent, for thinking like a “baizuo” — Chinese Internet slang meaning “white liberal.”
“We study-abroad students don’t know anything about politics, we just know our personal interest and our sense of belonging to our nation,” he said. “If other people hurt us, smear us, we have to counterattack.”
On Wednesday, several Chinese student organizations put out a joint statement reproaching McMaster for hosting a “separatist” critic of the Chinese government and demanded that the university uphold its “duty of supervision.”
In a statement, McMaster’s Muslim Students’ Association and Muslims for Justice and Peace, the groups that organized the event, said they are “highly concerned” by what they called an attempt to silence coverage of human rights issues on campus.
Turdush, the activist, said the experience left her unnerved.
As she was set to begin, she said, she saw a student standing at the back of the room, filming the door. As she delivered her presentation, she noticed another student filming her. “I felt like he was sent by the consulate to distract me,” she said.
She worried that people filming and potentially reporting students or scholars to Chinese officials could threaten academic freedom.
“Uighurs are sending me messages,” Turdush said, “They ask, ‘How can these guys do this in Canada?’ ”
Shih reported from Beijing and Rauhala from Washington.