The rise of Chinese student power casts further uncertainty over Canada-China ties

Society & Culture

Chemi Lhamo and Rukiye Turdush

Canadians’ opinion of China, on a downward trajectory over the last few years, may have hit a new low in the wake of the angry displays of Chinese student power at two university events in the province of Ontario early this month.

A group of Chinese students campaigned aggressively to oust Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan Canadian, shortly after she was elected student president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (USTC). Days later, on February 11, another group tried to intimidate Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush as she was giving a talk at McMaster University in Hamilton city on human rights abuses inflicted on her people in China’s Xinjiang region.

Lhamo is a Tibetan Canadian with pro-Tibet political leanings while Turdush is a former president of the Uyghur Canadian Society who studied international development and social work in Canada. Tibetans and Uyghurs, two of China’s most prominent ethnic minority groups, are pushing back against Beijing’s policies to suppress their way of life as part of a wider government campaign to combat separatist forces in the country.

The students’ protests carried glimpses of Mao Zedong’s China of the 1960s when fanatical mobs, encouraged by the Communist party, would emerge seemingly out of nowhere to denounce, threaten and destroy opponents of the regime.

The protests at the Ontario universities were significant for a number of reasons even though they failed in their objectives to stop the two activists.

First, they were largely initiated by young Chinese with years of education and travel in the west. Their angry nationalistic reaction to the two activists challenges the assumption that this generation of Chinese youth would be more open to free speech and the right of others to hold different opinions. They are supposed to be more reasoned and tempered than their predecessors who had known only repressive totalitarian rule. Now it looks like some of them share the same illiberal values of their parents and grandparents who support authoritarian communism.

In intimidating the two women, the protestors — China’s future generation of leaders, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and managers — showed little empathy for their country’s minority groups or understanding of the values of fair play, free speech, and the rights of others.

Second, whether they realized it or not, the students had attempted to shut down free speech in Canada. They could have insisted on holding an open balanced debate to argue for Beijing’s position on Tibet and Xinjiang. Indeed, the world needs to hear in detail why the Chinese government is pursuing its Sinicization programs in those regions with such vigor. Instead, the students wanted no discussion at all as they sought to silence their opponents.

Third, the protests raise questions about the extent of Chinese student power, and how Canada should handle it. The students’ economic and financial contributions are crucial, with many cash-strapped universities and local economies grateful for their presence at a time when the West is enveloped in self-doubt about its own philosophical underpinnings and institutions. But does this mean the protesting students are part of an army of embedded influencers working for President Xi Jinping? Did the protestors act out of youthful impulse or the belief that the motherland is being threatened by activists directed by the CIA? Should Canada engage and “turn” these students, or at least a portion of them, in the same way that the United States persuaded China to defect from Mao’s communism 40 years ago?


It is not for Canada to stop free speech on its turf to accommodate China’s sensitivities.


Fourth, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa praised the “just and patriotic actions of the Chinese students” in censoring public discussion on Tibet and Xinjiang. Even though it denied any role in organizing the protests, the embassy openly endorsed the students’ actions, raising questions about Beijing’s interference in the Canadian political process. The retort that Canada had started this fight by allowing the two activists to criticize China’s domestic politics doesn’t wash as Canadian universities are founded on the principles of free speech. In choosing to study in Canadian schools, Chinese students knew that they would be exposed to both the risks and joys of free speech, including debates on “subversive” topics like Tibet, Xinjiang, and human rights. The onus therefore lies with China and its students to deal with the challenge of free speech in Canada. It is not for Canada to stop free speech on its turf to accommodate China’s sensitivities.

Fifth, the protests have given a real-life example of how the Chinese government might use the 140,000 Chinese students in Canadian universities and schools to try influence public opinion in Canada. The protests were an eye-opening experience for many Canadians who had never before seen Chinese nationalism displayed with such intensity on their soil.

Within hours of Ms Lhamo’s election, an online petition calling for her ouster was launched. Initiated by a “Kennedy L,” it began:

This petition is not meant for personal attack, character assassination or threat of any kind. We want to draw Chinese international students’ attention to the SCSU election, as well as calling for the awareness and protection of Chinese students’ own rights. We strongly disagree with Lhamo’s political statements and her participation in political campaigns that were clearly against Chinese history, Chinese laws and Chinese students’ rights.

The petition collected 11,159 signatures by the time it closed several days later on February 15, a testimony to the organization and efficiency of the campaign. It is not known how many of the University of Toronto’s 11,544 students from China signed. Lhamo was also bombarded with hate mail and phone calls from campus mates who accused her of encouraging separatists to tear China apart.

According to the Globe and Mail, she had to shut down her new office twice for safety reasons after students showed up to demand her election be nullified.

Kenneth L’s petition denounced Lhamo’s “political belief that Tibet should be free from the People’s Republic of China.”

It accused her of posting “pictures that contained disrespectful and obscene hand gesture toward China, and pro-independence statements regarding Taiwan.”

The petition stated that Chinese students who believe in the One China policy and China’s sovereignty have an “obligation to protest against Lhamo’s political beliefs” and denounce “her participation in political campaigns that were clearly against Chinese history, Chinese laws and Chinese students’ rights.”

It also suggested that she had deceived Chinese students into voting for her as they were not aware of her “Free Tibet” political stance.

Over at McMaster University, the protest against Turdush’s talk on February 11 was no less dramatic. Speaking to a small group, she was interrupted by some students shouting at her, including one who yelled “fuck you” as he stormed out of the hall.

In a follow-up statement on YouTube, Turdush said she suspects the students have “strong connections with the Chinese consulate” and had acted on instructions from Chinese government officials.

Tipping point: Canadians’ disdain for China

Finally, the protestors’ behaviour could shift Canadians’ attitude towards China to one of outright disdain and anger at what they see is the growing threat of Chinese influence in their country. The protests follow closely on the Huawei-linked political crisis that is still unfolding after last December’s arrest of the company’s chief financial officer in Vancouver.

Some Canadian politicians with the support of members of the media are promoting an inflammatory narrative that unfairly links the sizeable ethnic Chinese community with Metro Vancouver’s three biggest threats: rising housing cost, money laundering and the deadly opioid crisis. The story of Chinese students silencing free speech and undermining democracy in Canada will only fuel this explosive mix of accusations.

Some Canadians are demanding that Ottawa launch an investigation into whether the Chinese government might have played a role in the two protests. According to a National Post report, Turdush along with two Muslim student groups and Students for a Free Tibet made that call in a joint letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Earlier, someone by the name of Jack Mackenzie launched a petition “against bullying from Chinese student against the president-designate of UTSC student union.” Mackenzie described the protestors’ attempts to silence Lhamo’s “Free Tibet” position as “a serious abuse of freedom of speech in our country.”

On the online forum of the National Post’s February 14 story about the protests, readers’ comments reflected a cohesive hardline view of Chinese students in Canada, with many calling for the expulsion of “these aggressive, vulgar, nationalistic extremists with xenophobic tendencies,” as one user termed it. Other comments included [assume sic]:

Vincent Kiraly: “The presence of tens of thousands of Chinese students in Canadian Universities is not a coincidence. There is a concerted effort by China to infiltrate and ‘colonise’ soft targets like Australia, Canada, and the U.S. through the back door of their educational systems.”

John Argus: “Simple solution. Get the names off the list and deport them all.”

Barry Robbins: “Calling out Chinese students for being exploiters of our country’s educational system is not racist. They are Chinese and they are infiltrators.”

John Dowell: “There are thousands of Chinese srudents in Canada. We need to keep an eye on them so they don’t become a fifth column if they aren’t already.”

If these views solidify and become mainstream, a key assumption that young Chinese studying in Canada are a bedrock for strong bilateral ties will be discredited. The loss of this assumption will add further uncertainty to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between China and the West.