China-Backed Student Group Weaponizes Wokeness To Attack Regime Critics

CCP-funded group hounds freed Hong Kong official for speech at the University of Chicago

University of Chicago campus / Getty Images
June 1, 2021

Student groups backed by the Chinese Communist Party are using the language and tactics of far-left campus activists to advance the party's agenda, a Hong Kong democracy advocate told the Washington Free Beacon.

Nathan Law, a member of the Hong Kong government until his expulsion and imprisonment at the hands of the Chinese regime, experienced this firsthand when a student group tied to the CCP attempted to cancel one of his talks at the University of Chicago. Using the language of American social justice activists, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) told the administration that hosting Law "falls outside the purviews of free speech." The Chinese regime, Law said, is adept at exploiting power politics to silence critics. At home, they strong-arm dissenters; in the United States, they play the victim card.

"They want their narrative to be accepted by western communities," Law said. "No matter what narrative or terms they use to conceive these facts, it’s easy to spot them once you understand what they are doing."

Even with heightened scrutiny, the university rebuked the association's pressure campaign. A spokesman for the university told the Free Beacon the university remains committed to free expression and intellectual diversity on campus. Law praised the university's commitment to free speech but warned that other schools remain susceptible to the CSSA’s influence.

"They’ve done the right thing, but I suspect that for the other schools who are vulnerable to the influence of Chinese students ... they could be more susceptible to these behaviors from CSSA."

The University of Chicago CSSA did not return a request for comment.

The university was one of the first schools to shutter its Confucius Institute in 2014, an organization the Trump administration later condemned for intimidating Chinese students and acting as a listening post for the Chinese Communist Party. As more universities close their doors to Confucius Institutes—only 47 remain in the United States as of May 18, according to the National Association of Scholars—China’s campaign to exert influence on campus has changed tactics. China has since rebranded to use groups such as the CSSA to advance its interests. Group chapters are backed by the Chinese embassy and dot more than 150 college campuses nationwide.

In April, the Cornell CSSA chapter petitioned their university's administration to maintain an academic relationship with Peking University, a Chinese school known for its extensive ties to the Chinese military. The group also said human rights issues such as the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang are "deliberately created" by western media and governments to discredit China.

CSSA has repeatedly targeted Law since he arrived in the United States, objecting to talks he has given at NYU and the University of Pennsylvania, in addition to the University of Chicago. The documented financial relationship between China and CSSAs, he said, should also force the government to consider designating CSSAs as foreign agents.

"There is ample evidence of collaboration between the CSSA and the embassies," Law said. "The CSSA should be registered as foreign agents and reveal their financial records.... [This is] a situation of terror when these liberal-minded students want to speak up but are silenced by these more nationalist students from mainland China."

The Trump administration made progress in cracking down on Chinese influence on college campuses by targeting Confucius Institutes and foreign donations. The Biden administration in February withdrew a Trump administration executive order to track Confucius Institutes and has not yet put forth an agenda for holding China accountable on campus. In the meantime, Law said, some universities are unlikely to take a hard line against China due to financial incentives.

"There are limitations for those [colleges] who heavily rely on the tuition fees from Chinese students or funding from the Chinese government," Law said. "There’s still a long way to go."