August 27, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Should Suspend Its China Projects

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The massive scale of the Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang has become quite clear. Cornell should suspend all projects involving Chinese counterparts and undertake a transparent review to see if any ought to be terminated because they are aiding these atrocities.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has carried out a mass terror campaign in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, targeting millions of ethnic-minority people and forcing them to give up their culture and religion. Those who refuse are sent to brainwashing camps, where they are tormented into denying their ethnic identity and everyday faith and told to stop speaking their own language.

As I have argued elsewhere, this campaign is effectively a program of genocide. It includes a massive effort to break up families, with children confiscated and cut off from both their families and their culture. This is a mass trauma that will linger for generations. Then there is the mass detention of indigenous cultural icons, which is why the campaign is also called a “cultural genocide.”

Chinese universities and Chinese tech companies are entangled in all this, profiting immensely from government contracts on surveillance, enforcement, concentration camp construction, propaganda campaigns and so on.

The tech giant Tencent, for example, is deeply involved in the building of China’s dystopian high-tech police state. Yet Tencent’s chairman was enlisted as an advisor to Cornell’s China center — even invited to speak to Cornell Tech students. What programs are going on with Tencent and other “private” firms that collude with the police state, in destroying the dignity of millions of innocent people collectively punished because of their ethnicity?

Some universities are already undertaking reviews to make sure they are not enabling this 21st-century tragedy. Others are already dealing with the fallout. MIT collaborated with the surveillance industry; at Yale, a genetics professor helped devise the racist profiling system China is now using against its own minorities. But huge problems remain.

It’s definitely not just Eric Prince’s Blackwater conglomerate that is collaborating. Pension funds in New York and elsewhere are also financing the oppression. The global clothing industry is being called out for sourcing materials from forced labor in China’s colony in Xinjiang. The next uproar will be about ketchup — much of the world’s ketchup uses forced-labor tomatoes, including those grown by the Bingtuan, the infamous Chinese military corporation charged with colonizing Xinjiang since the 1950s.

Some might say it is anti-Chinese or Sinophobic to point these things out. But that’s precisely what the regime would like you to think. Chinese people are not sheep to be herded around by the Communist Party. Some Chinese people have protested their government’s policies in Xinjiang, but mostly only in exile: Voicing one’s opinion inside China is a different matter. Han Chinese are also being sent to the camps, alongside the million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others already there.

It can be dangerous outside China, too. When I spoke about the Xinjiang catastrophe at a Cornell China center event recently, pushing for a review of our China links, a Chinese man I never met grabbed my hand on my way out, shook it and said quietly: “Thank you for what you said.” To speak up might be dangerous for him.

Indeed, the foremost challenge with Chinese scholars and students abroad, including on Cornell’s campus, is ensuring they are free to explore ideas and express opinions without fear of intrusive monitoring, punitive censorship, or threats and pressure from Chinese consulates, embassies or government-controlled “Chinese scholars and students associations.”

To do this, we first need to ditch blanket terms like “the Chinese” and distinguish between Chinese people and the regime under which they’re suffering. We also need to find ways to protect Chinese students from being pressured into “patriotic” acts, including on-campus violence to shut down criticism of the regime, as happened in Australia and New Zealand recently, and earlier in the U.S. Cornell should make clear to those consuls, that they are not allowed to interfere on our campus.

Back in 2008, my colleague at Cornell received death threats for daring to screen a film about Tibet. But we got a Cornell police officer posted in the back — and a pep talk on the freedom of speech from a University Vice President — and the event went without incident.

But today, Cornell and its new China center are observing a blanket silence on the unprecedented genocide in Xinjiang. The center has a Chinese advisory board with corporate types only — no cultural figures or anyone else that could offer critical perspectives. If we want the best Chinese advice on China, why didn’t we invite, say, Teng Biao, the brilliant exiled Chinese lawyer who recently lectured in our Law School?

Worse, the center runs a grant program set up to self-censor. By requiring Chinese collaborators, it submits us to the Chinese government’s draconian censorship machine. No Chinese scholar in China would be allowed to collaborate with outsiders on taboo topics like the Xinjiang concentration camps, forced labor or anything close. They’d lose their job if they tried.

Cornell’s own WeChat account was promoted by administrators at a recent China center event. We should all follow and post to it, they said. WeChat is run by Tencent; it’s a police-monitored, heavily censored platform. Many people in China are in jail because they voiced opinions there — among them Zhang Haitao, who got 19 years for daring to criticize the government in Xinjiang. Other U.S. universities have already cautioned its students of the dangers of expressing themselves on WeChat, yet there’s no warning to Cornellians that if you use it, you better watch yourself.

I wonder if Cornell is just assuming that Cornellians automatically will know to go along with the self-censorship — that we already know to be silent. But silence is complicity.

Magnus Fiskesjö is an associate professor in the department of anthropology. Comments may be sent to [email protected].