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China-US relations

Chinese students in US fear backlash after Vice-President Mike Pence’s inflammatory speech

But politician’s suggestion of a sinister link between Chinese Student and Scholar Associations and Beijing is widely dismissed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 12:48am

Chinese students in the United States have dismissed claims made by US Vice-President Mike Pence that their official groups representing them are part of a Communist Party effort to “foster a culture of censorship”, though they did express concerns of a backlash from the inflammatory remarks.

In a speech in Washington on Thursday, Pence accused Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (CSSA) of alerting consulates and embassies whenever students, or their American schools, “stray from the Communist Party line”.

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“Anyone who knows me personally will find it absurd to think I’m a spy,” said Huhe Yan, a final-year student at Columbia University in New York, who comes from Hohhot, capital of north China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

“For me, the worry is not so much how my peers at the school will treat me differently because of this rhetoric …[ it’s that] biases and insecurity tend to translate into aggression, whether that be on the global stage or on the street in America.”

More than 350,000 Chinese are currently studying in the US – accounting for about a third of its international student body – and many are puzzled by what they see as a complete misunderstanding of why they are there.

“I feel very angry about his [Pence’s] comments,” said Zhiyu Wan, who is studying for a PhD at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and until this summer was vice-president of its CSSA.

“We have never alerted the Chinese consulate or embassy about anything related to the Communist Party. We do not have such an obligation, and we would never do that”.

Wan said the group did once organise a meet-and-greet for a consular official who was visiting the campus, and that it received some financial support from the Chinese embassy, but only to pay for two annual holiday galas, which were open to both students and the public.

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Despite the students’ dismissal of any sinister links between CSSAs and diplomatic organs, a Chinese man who has worked for a state-owned firm in the US for more than a decade said there was some justification for American people’s concerns.

“There seems to be a trend among [Chinese] people who can’t get jobs in the US of trying to build connections through the Chinese embassy and officials,” he said on condition of anonymity. “This creates the impression that [they] … are under the direction of the Chinese government.”

But other issues, such as Chinese firms holding flag-raising ceremonies and mobilising workers to greet visiting leaders, as well as their associations with the United Front Work Department – a Communist Party organ that manages relations with people outside the party – were more to do with cultural differences that were poorly understood, he said.

America’s concerns about possible links between student groups and Beijing were highlighted last year when it was suggested that the Chinese government was behind an ultimately futile CSSA protest at the University of California San Diego against its decision to have the Dalai Lama speak at a graduation ceremony.

Despite the group’s failure to stop the spiritual leader from speaking, Yezhen Tan, a Chinese student and CSSA member at the University of Iowa, said he and his friends supported the protest.

“We would have done the same,” he said, and “definitely not” because of government pressure.

“The embassy’s influence is not as strong as you think.”

Adam Ni, a researcher into China’s foreign and security policy at Australian National University in Canberra, said that although other countries had student associations, the Chinese ones were more political.

“The Chinese party state sees them as quite important in controlling or at least influencing the views of overseas students,” he said.

“These student organisations have a varying degree of connectedness to the foreign ministry through embassies and consulates, but more importantly they also have contact with United Front organisations,” he said.

“There’s anecdotal evidence that some … have a low degree of contact with the party, while others take orders from the United Front.”

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For the students, however, the main concern is how the allegations and insinuations might affect how they are perceived by the American people.

Tan said that in Iowa – where soybean farmers have been hit by China’s trade tariffs on their crops – there had been a change of attitude towards Chinese students among both locals and his schoolmates.

The situation was the same at jobs fair, he said, where US companies were rejecting applications from Chinese students because they were concerned about their “long-term status”.

As a result, the CSSA was helping graduates to find work with Chinese companies, he said.

Wan, who is nearing the completion of his PhD, said he too feared for the future.

“I’m afraid the trade war will escalate into a new cold war, to the extent that I will have to leave the US and won’t be able to finish my studies here,” he said.

“I’m afraid that US people will regard Chinese students as enemies.”