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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Government-affiliated group casts a shadow over Chinese student dissent at UVic

Their dissent is subtle, due to concerns regarding a state-linked student group on campus. But it hasn't always been this way

By Michael John Lo
December 15, 2022
Politics
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Government-affiliated group casts a shadow over Chinese student dissent at UVic

Their dissent is subtle, due to concerns regarding a state-linked student group on campus. But it hasn't always been this way

By Michael John Lo
Dec 15, 2022
Chalk graffiti on a UVic campus building. On the right, written in Chinese, is a statement mocking the belief that overseas dissenting voices are a result of foreign forces: "Foreign Interference? We are Chinese!" Photo: Provided
Chalk graffiti on a UVic campus building. On the right, written in Chinese, is a statement mocking the belief that overseas dissenting voices are a result of foreign forces: "Foreign Interference? We are Chinese!" Photo: Provided
Politics
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Government-affiliated group casts a shadow over Chinese student dissent at UVic

Their dissent is subtle, due to concerns regarding a state-linked student group on campus. But it hasn't always been this way

By Michael John Lo
December 15, 2022
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Government-affiliated group casts a shadow over Chinese student dissent at UVic
Chalk graffiti on a UVic campus building. On the right, written in Chinese, is a statement mocking the belief that overseas dissenting voices are a result of foreign forces: "Foreign Interference? We are Chinese!" Photo: Provided

In early November, after Chinese president Xi Jinping began an unprecedented third term after changing China’s constitution to remain in power, someone scrawled a sarcastic phrase on a UVic campus building.

“Congratulations to President Xi for his third term!”

Another emerged on the face of another building, a few days later.

“We know about the war in Ukraine. We know about the protests in Iran. But we don’t care about the politics in China–because there is no hashtag about it.”

That would soon change. In late November, a deadly apartment building fire in China would spark sympathy protests across many major cities in China—the first mass protest in the nation crossing class and geography since 1989.

In videos circulated online of the incident, screaming could be heard from the 21-storey building, with people trying to open doors that had been bolted shut or obstructed with wooden bars, an apparent draconian pandemic-fighting measure. Local government officials have denied the accusations.

Videos show that firefighters at the scene were unable to reach the building, shooting jets of water that fell short. A critical passageway that would have allowed fire engines to access the building was blocked by fences and other structures set up as COVID measures. The northwestern city of Urumqi, where the apartment was located, had been under a strict lockdown for more than 199 days.

The official death count was 10. The Canada-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project claims it was 44.

The resulting protests across many major cities in China has been called the White Paper Revolution—or the A4 revolution, for the size of the standard sheet—a reference to the use of blank paper as a symbol of defiance against the Chinese state’s strict censorship policies that have crushed non-sanctioned political activities in the country. On the night of Nov. 26, protesters gathered on Urumqi Middle Road in Shanghai chanted, "Xi Jinping, step down!" shortly before a police crackdown.

For Boyd, a 23-year-old UVic computer science student who asked that his last name not be used for fear of state retribution, it was a deep shame to see the indifference and lack of support in Victoria toward the protests in China. He’s part of a small group of people that has been placing unsanctioned art, slogans, and poetry across UVic’s campus walls in support of the recent protests in China.

Capital Daily’s interview with Boyd has been translated from Mandarin.

Before he spoke to Capital Daily on an encrypted phone messaging app, he made sure to disconnect his phone from the local wireless network.

“I’m not sure how much you know about China’s national security [apparatus],” Boyd said. “They are using very advanced technologies on their own people.”
While Boyd had left China nearly a decade ago, he still carries the fear of political retribution against his family members still in China.

Some of the sayings written at UVic are similar to those that have seen young protestors detained and harassed by police in China: Drawings of hands holding up blank papers. A section of a Chinese poem. Words of support, explicitly identifying themselves as Chinese instead of foreign interlocutors.

While he’s only working with a few others at UVic to raise awareness about the protests, Boyd said that his actions were in part inspired by the political action from students that he’s seen at other universities like UBC, Western University, and the University of Toronto.

“It’s very insignificant. It’s nothing like Iran,” he said, referring to the frequent solidarity rallies in Victoria in support for the Iranian protests. Part of the reason is due to more Chinese international students coming from a privileged class background, and of China’s strong indoctrination policies that lead to politically averse habits, Boyd added.  

“We were fed propaganda, so that people would blindly obey,” Boyd said. “Some have been here for more than 10 years but still live as they are, without any reflection.”

For Boyd, that moment of introspection began when he saw the sheer number of people at Hong Kong’s 2019 protests: hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.

“Their society is very ordered. For them to go out into the streets, they must have had a reason,” Boyd said. That led to the awakening of what he describes as his “citizen’s conscience.”

But it's difficult to exercise that conscience, even here. One of the slogans written on campus—long cleaned off by UVic groundskeepers, points to a reason.
"I'm afraid to speak out because CSSA might report me and my family to the Chinese government.”

Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) can be found at many university campuses in the West, student clubs where Chinese nationals congregate. Some CSSAs have engaged in harassment and have threatened to report dissenting Chinese voices to China’s secret police. In 2019, the student union at McMaster University decertified its CSSA student group over its alleged actions on behalf of the Chinese government and harassment of Uyghur activists.

Vancouver Chinese Consul-General Shu Yang (centre) poses with Chinese international student representatives at UVic during a November 16-17 visit to Victoria. According to a press release by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yang was at the university to introduce China's recent milestones in development, visiting students to express the hope that they will help build the Chinese nation in the future. Photo: Submitted

On UVic CSSA's website, it prominently identifies itself as a registered UVic student group and a non-profit student organization managed by the Chinese Vancouver Consulate's education department.

The group did not respond to requests for comment. Siyi He, who is listed as the UVic CSSA’s representative and contact under the University of Victoria’s Students’ Society, did not respond to requests for comment.

The UVSS also declined a request to comment, citing ongoing investigations. “We are currently looking into this and will act according to our findings,” said UVSS student affairs director Deborah Berman.

Boyd wants to see UVic itself look into the group.

“Because of their existence, we feel fear,” he said. “We shouldn’t be feeling afraid on campus. The reason why we decided to come here [to Canada] was because this was a place where we could experience freedom. But once again, we still feel that we are not free.”

UVic was unable to provide a response before press time, citing staff absences as the reason for the delay, but sent a written statement after an earlier version of this story was published.

“UVic has many student associations on campus that fall under the purview of the University of Victoria Students’ Society,” the statement reads. “Student safety is the university’s top priority. UVic is committed to providing a safe, inclusive campus that supports diversity in all its forms.”

UVic did not answer questions about what would have to happen for the university to investigate a student club.

History of UVic student activism on China

It wasn’t always this way. The 1989 Chinese student protests and its subsequent bloody crackdown was widely and publicly condemned in Victoria and at UVic.

Photos published in the UVic campus paper The Ring during that time show hundreds attending a rally and candlelight vigil organized on the lawn of the BC legislature by the UVSS and the now-defunct Chinese Students’ Association.

Today, more international students come to UVic from China than any other country. About 1,200 Chinese citizens made up 31% of UVic’s international student cohort this year, a percentage that has been trending down in recent years; UVic is working to reduce its dependence on China for international student tuition dollars due to “geopolitical considerations in China,” according to a recent UVic report.

Back in 1989, however, only an estimated 60 or 70 Chinese citizens attended UVic. UVic staff published and sold calligraphy broadsides at the university book store in memory of demonstrators killed in Beijing in June 1989 and to raise funds for Chinese students in Canada.

The university president at the time, Howard Petch, personally met with the students and assured them that the university was prepared to assist with any short-term financial needs from the Chinese crisis. Petch also cancelled upcoming university visits to China and wrote to Canadian and Chinese officials to express his concerns about the unfolding events in Beijing.

Earlier this year UVic issued a statement and put together a list of supports for those affected by the Ukraine conflict. A similar statement was issued around the university student protests in Iran. But UVic has not made a  public statement regarding the recent widespread protests in China. It did not put out an official statement during the 2019 Hong Kong protests either, despite UVic’s ongoing student exchange programs in the city.

For now, Boyd and others have been relegated to writing on walls.

“UVic hasn’t provided a space or a forum where we can express these opinions, so we can only use these legally-grey methods to make our point,” Boyd said.

The university's statement clarified its position on the use of graffiti.

“We support students’ right to expression and our facilities policy allows chalk graffiti—with the exception of hate speech or other forms of discrimination—to be posted on the grounds of the campus,” the statement read. “We do not condone graffiti being placed on buildings; this violates our policy and we would have it removed immediately.”

In 2018, UVic covered up its library foyer chalkboard, formerly a space where campus community members could freely write about whatever topic they wished. It was covered up, mainly due to an issue of someone repeatedly writing racist comments about China, the Martlet reported.

In a 2019 interview with the Martlet, former UVic professor Guoguang Wu said that he had to be “self-disciplined and self-censored” about his desire to organize panels and events on campus to discuss the Hong Kong protests.

Every time Boyd and others add another slogan or a piece of art onto the side of a campus building, they make sure that the chalk can be easily scrubbed off by hand. “We don’t want anyone to have a negative reaction to us, because we chose to use this method.”

After cracking down on the demonstrations, the country in the process of reversing long-standing pandemic measures. It’s entirely possible that the protests will be completely forgotten, Boyd said. But he said that he’ll continue regardless, with or without the university’s support and protection.

This story was updated after publication on Dec. 16 to include an updated response from UVic.

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