Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor

People gather on the Arts Quad for the Students For Hong Kong Action Day Rally on Oct. 1, 2021.

October 5, 2021

Students Protest Chinese Government Human Rights Abuses, Drawing Opposition From Fellow Students

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Protesters and counterprotesters stood in peaceful but tense opposition at a Hong Kong Action Day Rally on Friday on the Arts Quad, continuing campus discussion of Chinese government policies.

The Hong Kong Action Day Rally protesters advocated for awareness of human rights violations by the Chinese government, including the ongoing genocide of Uighur people, the anti-free speech effects of the Hong Kong National Security law and attempts at forced assimilation of Tibetan people.

According to Kinen Kao ’22, one of the protest’s organizers and co-president of Society for the Promotion of East Asian Liberty, the protest was also meant to continue advocating against the School of Hotel Administration’s dual-degree program with China’s Peking University. Speakers at the protest included Kao, Prof. Eli Friedman, industrial and labor relations, and SPEAL co-president Samuel Kim ’23.

“Even if we don’t successfully force Cornell to suspend the [dual-degree] program, at least by putting pressure on them, they will know that next time they want to pursue other collaborations with Chinese universities, we will speak up against them,” Kao said.

The dual-degree program with Peking University was opposed by the Student Assembly in March 2021 and by the Faculty Senate in April last spring — but the Cornell administration established the program regardless.

“We encourage responsible collaborations even in countries with which we might have fundamental disagreements,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in a May 2021 press release.

Attendees at the Friday rally included members of SPEAL, the Tibet Initiative at Cornell and Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Association. In addition to fighting for Cornell policy change, many protesters also said they wanted to support mainland Chinese people who criticize the government, as well as Tibetans, Hong Kongers and Uighurs.

“The fact that this rally happened would probably never reach mainland China, Tibet or Hong Kong because of the information control,” said a student from Hong Kong, who asked to remain anonymous so that he can safely return home. “Still, for overseas Tibetans, Uighurs, Hong Kongers and mainlanders, I think it is important that they know that there is someone in support of them and I want to be that.”

Hanjun Cui ’24 said he considers American concerns about Chinese government policies hypocritical because of the current surge in anti-Asian American hate crimes in the United States. Cui participated in the protest because he thinks that SPEAL’s use of a COVID virus graphic in one of their posters exacerbates anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment on campus.

“If anyone doesn’t care about what is happening to Asians here in their homeland but cares about what happens to Asians thousands of miles away, that is too hypocritical for me to handle,” Cui said.

SPEAL organizers Kao and Kim condemned anti-Asian racism in a statement to The Sun. Kao said that the use of the coronavirus in the poster was meant to criticize the Chinese government’s response to the pandemic, but said the organization won’t use the logo again. Kao said he believes that anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States can be addressed while also advocating for the safety of Uighurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers.

“There’s no place in the world that is perfect,” Kao said. “I believe that just because there’s still problems in the U.S., that cannot justify what the Chinese Communist Party is doing with Tibetans, Uighurs or Hong Kongers.”

Friedman, who has been involved in academic research and activism in China for decades, spoke to the crowd of protesters, criticizing the University for looking past academic freedom violations when deciding to start the hotel school’s dual-degree program with China’s Peking University and forthcoming global hubs in China.

“Will [Cornell] provide any kind of scrutiny of these institutions to protect academic freedom?” Friedman said. 

Some students, including Ryan Shi ’22, an international student from Beijing, said they’re  glad that Cornell decided to go forward with the dual-degree program with Peking University. Shi said he thinks that activists who want to stop dual-degree programs with Chinese universities unfairly target students in China.

Annie Hsu ’24 and Amber Hsu ’23 are sisters who moved from Taiwan to the United States for high school, and came to the protest to advocate for their friends from Hong Kong as well as for the safety of Uigurs and Tibetans. Annie and Amber said their criticism is reserved for the Chinese government, not its citizens.

Many of the counter protesters, some of whom asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety, were skeptical about the protesters’ statements about Chinese government actions.

While human rights abuses by the Chinese government have been widely reported on by the New York Times and CNN, some counterprotesters considered United States-based media outlets to be biased.

According to a student from China, who asked to remain anonymous so that he can safely visit China, knowing how many students from China on Cornell’s campus disagree with Chinese government policies is challenging because of the prevalence of self-censorship.

“We grow up being taught that you have to know about politics, but never get involved,” the student said. “I have to do self censorship if I want to still go back to China.”