China-Backed Student Group Pressures Cornell on Educational Partnership

Ivy League school told to ignore faculty, student concerns about China's human-rights abuses

Cornell University / Source: Robert Barker/University Photography
April 15, 2021

A student group backed by the Chinese embassy is pressuring Cornell University to ignore faculty and student opposition and push forward with a multimillion-dollar partnership with the regime.

The Cornell chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is circulating a petition calling on Cornell to launch a controversial dual degree program bankrolled by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The group dismisses allegations of Chinese human-rights abuses as an attempt to "deliberately discredit and attack China."

"We sincerely hope that Cornell can carry out mutually beneficial cooperation with China," the petition says, "and avoid ideological conflicts, political disagreements and other factors affecting pure academic exchanges."

Students frequently launch petition campaigns—but unlike most student groups, the CSSA has the official backing of a foreign government. CSSA is the "ONLY Chinese student organization officially supported by [the] Embassy of People's Republic of China at Cornell University," according to its website. There are more than 150 CSSA branches on American universities across the country. It is unclear what role the Chinese embassy played in this petition, but Beijing has a history of using CSSA branches to influence campus discourse. Chinese consulate officials have ordered CSSA chapters to disseminate Chinese Communist Party propaganda on social media and have encouraged the groups to denounce anti-China views on campus, according to Foreign Policy. The group's Australian chapter allegedly spied on students on behalf of the Chinese government.

The embassy's involvement in upstate New York is a testament to the global reach of the Chinese propaganda apparatus, which hopes to minimize the repercussions of the Chinese government's human-rights violations. Engaging with Cornell is a key part of achieving that goal—by influencing Cornell, the Chinese state can influence the next generation of American elites.

"If they can shape in some way the way that Cornell students think about the CCP, then they can shape the future of America," Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The CSSA launched its petition after the Cornell student assembly and faculty senate passed resolutions in March demanding the university reconsider its plans for a dual degree program with Peking University. The students and the professors said a partnership with a government that is inflicting genocide and a university that jails its students violates Cornell's values.

CSSA's petition claims to speak on behalf of Cornell's Chinese students who are outraged by the resolution and "angry at the prejudice and attack China has suffered." The petition calls on Cornell to launch an "independent investigation" into China's human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

"As we all know, these media often deliberately discredit and attack China for political reasons. Recently, The human rights issue in Xinjiang deliberately created by the Western government and the media is the most typical example," the letter read. 

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that while CSSA's petition might represent the views of some members of Cornell's community, it ignores many Chinese students who "are not voicing their opinions publicly due to fear of possible repercussions." 

"The fact that we hear mostly just one voice coming from the Chinese students is because other voices are in effect being silenced, even though the students are in the U.S.," Wang said.

The links between CSSA and the Chinese embassy—which often, though not always, provides funding for the student group—has alarmed policymakers. In 2018, then-vice president Mike Pence said the CSSA is fostering a "culture of censorship" on American campuses by alerting the Chinese embassy and consulates when Chinese international students "stray from the Communist Party line."

Magnus Fiskesjö, a Cornell anthropologist studying Uyghur issues, said Cornell must stand against an embassy-backed group that intimidates Chinese nationals and prevents free discourse.

"We should oppose Chinese government interference in our academic affairs—and we must protect the right also of Chinese students who come here, to not be forced and coerced into repeating the regime's party line," Fiskesjö said.