Un-Peaceful Rise on Campus

WHAT was meant to be a look at an egregious human rights violation turned into a stunning show of incivility—a breakdown of all values and practices that New York’s most prestigious university holds dear. For two hours last Friday, the Columbia University community was given a chilling glimpse at one Chinese export America can decidedly do without: hatred.

The event—a panel discussion on forcible organ “harvesting” from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience in China—sought to explore the grim findings of two Canadian investigators. David Matas, a prominent human rights attorney and one of the two, was to be the main speaker, joined by two Chinese medical doctors. One of the doctors, Charles Lee, was himself a prisoner of conscience in China, having been arrested for his association with the Falun Gong. Along with the indignity of being forced to assemble Christmas tree lights for export, Lee was subjected to torture and a variety of depravations while held for three years in a Chinese labor camp.

Little did the panelists expect—and nor should they have—that they would be met with a vitriolic contingent of CU Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CUCSSA) members, bent on unleashing a mindless, seething entity referred to by some as “China’s new nationalism.” (CUCSSA is comprised of Chinese foreign nationals.) In the words of CUCSSA’s own Working Committee, which circulated a veritable call to arms via email the night before the event, “facing this demonization [of China] we cannot hold back!”

The “demonization” referred to, of course, was the exposure of human rights violations happening in their country. Chinese students, after years of education engineered by the Party-state, have difficulty, scholars observe, discerning between “China” as a place or a people and the one-party regime that rules it.

In language that could have come straight from the mouth of Chairman Mao some four decades ago, the email further enjoined the group’s loyal membership, declaring, “we will use the sea of [Chinese] flags, dyed with blood, to strike hard against the [group’s] arrogant fervor, and to resolutely defend the honor and dignity of the Motherland!” Physical confrontation is elsewhere indicated in the message—the implied recourse should “Americans” fail to “listen to us.”

In the aftermath of the bizarre protest—a mix of childishness (chucking paper airplanes at the podium?), disruptions, and hate speech—CUCSSA posted on its website a so-called “news report” on the event declaring it had therein “exhibited its formidable cohesive force and combat effectiveness” and “sent a vivid warning to other organizations” that holding similar activities would “only accelerate one’s self-destruction!” Would that include, then, those documenting the CCP’s practice of forced abortions? How about those who tried to publicize SARS when the regime sought to hide it? CUCSSA students, the letter openly declares, “share bitter hatred of the enemy”—referring to the Falun Dafa club, whose members do meditative exercises on a small plot of grass on campus each morning. And then there are the numbers: the one-page article calls the Columbia club “evil” no less than 17 times.

Hardly the discourse of China’s “peaceful rise” we are usually treated to by Chinese officialdom.

The question is begged, then, as to just who exactly is this “we” that is invoked in the email and report. And why speak of “Americans” rather than, say, “classmates”? After all, aren’t we all part of the same campus community, bound by a common, higher pursuit? And is violence really a legitimate option when people don’t accept your opinion at their panel discussion? Why threaten with doom and “destruction” people who have different opinions?

The answer lies first and foremost in the education today’s Chinese receive. From cradle on up, everything comprising their living environment is carefully engineered by the Party-state. It is an ersatz, Orwellian world if ever there was, with most everything—from textbooks to toys, television to theatre—regulated by communist rulers so as to either boost or maintain their power. It is an air-tight system that defies all but the occasional, slight puncture. As one IT friend who grew up in China told me after watching The Matrix: “That’s China.” He would go on to watch the film four more times, so unsettling was the realization it sparked.

It is a bizarre world, populated by conjured villains (e.g., landlords), enemies (Japanese), bullies (America), and threats (Falun Gong). Things are inverted here. AIDS activists like 80-year old Dr. Gao Yaojie are labeled “trouble makers” and arrested. Human rights attorneys who try to reign in corrupt officials and uphold the law, such as Gao Zhisheng, are charged with “subversion” of state power. Activists, like Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, are arrested and beaten for documenting things like forced sterilization and abortion campaigns. And of course, peaceful meditators are cast by state-run press as “disruptive” and “dangerous,” and tortured to death.

Thus many of China’s twenty-something generation are so inundated with this communist vision of the world, they seldom realize it even when they have moved into other realities, such as that of democratic America. CUCSSA students I spoke with at the forum, I found, did not read newspapers published in the free world. “They’re all anti-China,” one student confidently explained. When I asked if by “China” she meant the communist party, or the people there—who the Party does not allow to vote—it seemed the difference was lost upon her.

Upon the student’s arrival on democratic shores, entities like the Chinese consulate quickly swoop in, chiefly through the form of puppet organizations. For example, some greet incoming students at the airport, quickly bringing them into the fold of a very like-minded community. Some never voyage yonder. One young Chinese acquaintance of mine didn’t know what a “sandwich” or “Kleenex” was, despite having lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and having attended Columbia.

The Consulate then orchestrates a virtual-reality on campus as it were, complete with social events, career advising, shopping trips, and of course, a host of occasions to help you remember how to “think” while on dangerous soil. Student club leaders eagerly clamor for positions in these organizations, knowing well the privileges tied to obedient performance; after a term as president, a plush job is as good as guaranteed. There is an intoxicating element of power I observe. These leaders, endorsed and guided by the largest political regime in the world, get to tell students what they (or “we”) think and do. A sense of impunity naturally follows.

All of which is tragic, on at least two accounts.

First of course is that here are rare, privileged students who have unimaginable freedoms before them in America but don’t even realize it, much less dare enjoy them. A Columbia education means little in this context. In fact, it might just be credentialing China’s next dictator.

And second, is the risk this scenario poses to the welfare of our communities, such as at Columbia. When others, such as CUCSSA’s select few leaders, share little in the basic, undergirding values and beliefs of the greater community, hurtful, abusive eruptions of incivility like that seen at the recent forum are possible. One needn’t go to China anymore to feel the sting of communist hate.

China’s communist rulers, of course, are not doing anyone a favor by creating this sordid predicament. In the aftermath of a similar incident last year at MIT, fomented by its version of CUCSSA, one professor poignantly remarked that, “the PRC government is doing their citizens no service by constructing and supporting a nationalism of victimization and conditioning them to respond with a childish wounded pride” to any imagined offense.

Nor is the regime helping matters by coordinating systematic efforts on U.S. soil to intimidate, harass, and silence folks like the Falun Gong or Chinese human rights activists. So serious has the infringement become that Congress passed Resolution 304 in October, 2004, calling on the Attorney General to investigate these affairs, and calling on PRC officials to “immediately stop interfering in the exercise of religious and political freedoms within the United States” or face possible legal repercussions.

Institutions such as Columbia University can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Congress has entreated them to be counted among the former. But, insofar as their funds and institutional name might be used by certain persons to alienate, hurt, and squelch the freedoms of other members of the community, they might have a ways to go.

Gerard Smith (a pseudonym) is a graduate of Columbia University who lives and works in New York