Mar 15, 2022 - World

Chinese students at Cornell "taunt" Uyghur classmate during event

Rizwangul NurMuhammad holds up a photo of her brother, who has been detained in China since 2017.
Cornell University student Rizwangul NurMuhammad holds up photos of her brother Mewlan, who has been detained in China since 2017. Photo: Rizwangul NurMuhammad

A group of Chinese international students at Cornell University booed and left an event last week in protest after a Uyghur student spoke about her brother's detention amid the Chinese government's genocide in Xinjiang.

The big picture: Uyghurs and other marginalized groups with ties to China can face intimidation, state surveillance and threats to their family members in China when they speak out on U.S. campuses about oppression by the Chinese government.

  • Some Chinese international students at universities in the U.S. and Canada have reported anti-Beijing speech to university authorities as a form of anti-Chinese racism, or they reported Uyghurs and Chinese dissidents on campus to Chinese diplomatic officials.

Details: On Thursday, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) spoke about her career in public service at a weekly speaker series held for students in Cornell University's Master in Public Administration program.

  • During the question and answer portion of the talk, Cornell student Rizwangul NurMuhammad asked Slotkin why the U.S. and international community had reacted with great speed and resolve to punish Russia for invading Ukraine but had yet to levy a similar sanctions regime on the Chinese government for its genocide in Xinjiang.
  • NurMuhammad explained that her brother Mewlan was arrested in 2017, as Chinese authorities began mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and that she has not been able to speak with him since then.
  • Slotkin replied that while Americans have a long Cold War history with Russia and can understand the implications of Russian military aggression, Americans don't know much about China, and may not know much about the human rights violations in Xinjiang.

What happened next: "There was audible booing and jeering going on from the Chinese students partway through her question, and during the answer they started to get up and just walked out of the room," said Pedro Fernandez, a Cornell student in the same program who was at the event.

  • Multiple people present at the event described the Chinese students' reaction to NurMuhammad as "jeering," "taunts," "snickering" and "booing."
  • About 40 Chinese students then walked out of the lecture hall, according to a video of the event viewed by Axios and interviews with people present.

What she's saying: "I don’t feel safe," NurMuhammad told Axios. "The walkout made me feel numb."

  • The message Chinese students conveyed was, "I have to stay silent because my speech and my personal experience are not welcome to be shared in that space," NurMuhammad said, adding she will continue to advocate publicly for Uyghurs.

The response by university leadership also left her feeling "unsupported," NurMuhammad said, though she said university police, the student health center and crisis services center are being very supportive.

  • A program administrator addressed remaining students immediately after the event ended and urged them to reach out to Chinese students for reconciliation, but the university administration did not reach out to NurMuhammad to hear her perspective or inquire about her welfare.
  • On Friday, the administration told students in an emailed statement "we have an expectation and responsibility to engage with viewpoints that we disagree with," but that "we must also respect that walkouts are a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval."
  • Cornell University declined further comment and directed Axios to the statements already sent to students.

The statement set off a chain of emails from program students who expressed outrage that the administration hadn't come out more forcefully in NurMuhammad's defense.

  • "As an international student, I have been in classes where my country is used as an example of corruption and dysfunction, yet I don't take offense to reality," wrote one student in an email viewed by Axios.
  • "Genocide isn’t up for debate. There is no both sides to the story," Guled Mire, a student from New Zealand and former refugee, told Axios in an interview. "I am absolutely ashamed to be a student at Cornell right now."
  • Fernandez described the administration's statement as "lopsided," saying it focused more on how the Chinese students experienced the event rather than what had happened to NurMuhammad.

The other side: William Wang, president of the program's student government body, drafted a letter that was signed by more than 80 Chinese students in the program and sent to the administration on Thursday evening, then sent to all program students on Friday.

  • "We left today’s colloquium because we felt that the atmosphere in that room was extremely hostile towards us," the letter stated. "At that moment, we were not sitting in a classroom; we were crucified in a courtroom for crimes that we did not commit."
  • Slotkin's talk wasn't focused on China, but she had said in an earlier portion of the event, "I'm thrilled there are so many Chinese students at Cornell" and "my beef tends to be with the Chinese government, I have no qualms and no issues with the Chinese people."
  • Wang did not respond to a request for comment.

What to watch: "The university needs to adopt a twin strategy, of educating students so that they have a space to discuss these issues without fear, while dealing with the very real feeling of threat and oppression that the Uyghur student feels," said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

  • "I would say that protecting her freedom of expression must be the priority."
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