When Cornell University student Kinen Kao decided to bring attention to the human-rights violations perpetrated against his countrymen back home in Hong Kong, he found that most of his classmates were supportive and even appreciative of his efforts.
Most, but not all. Even in bucolic Ithaca, N.Y., the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party was reaching for him — employing its repressive playbook of physical intimidation, social ostracization, and propaganda on the Ivy League campus — even as it tightened its grip on his homeland.
Kao, whose family is still in Hong Kong, helped found the Cornell Society for the Promotion of East Asian Liberty (SPEAL) amid the turmoil in his homeland in 2019 because he saw “young people, students like me going on the streets fighting for freedom and sacrificing their future, their bodies, and even their lives on the front line.”
“I realized I have to do something for Hong Kong, since I am also a Hong Konger,” he told National Review. After founding SPEAL, Kao began decorating campus with posters advertising protests and advocating on behalf of Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, and Tibetans. Like clockwork, they were torn down by students from mainland China.
On a few occasions, Kao found himself involved in verbal altercations with the vandals, but for the most part he just doggedly replaced the stolen materials. “I just wanted to keep putting them up, keep replacing those getting torn,” he said.
Tensions between Kao and the Chinese student community came to a head this summer after graduation, when Kao was assaulted by a student who was following him around downtown Ithaca, N.Y., as he put up posters.
“I took out my phone to record what he was doing, and then he pushed me onto the floor and tried to snatch away my phone,” recalled Kao. “Fortunately, some stranger stopped him, just like, came by and told him to stop attacking me.”
The attack on Kao, while an escalation, represents a continuation of, rather than a break from the typical tactics of CCP allies at American universities. Although campus conflicts between CCP sympathizers and regime-skeptics are rarely physical, intimidation of one sort or another is exceedingly common.
In a recent contribution to the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, University of North Carolina undergraduate Harrington Shaw took notice of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA), a CCP-sponsored collegiate organization found on approximately 150 different campuses across the country.
According to Shaw, those chapters may warrant special scrutiny after the near expulsion of Confucius Institutes — which were designated as foreign missions by the State Department in 2020 — from the university system. Since the State Department’s formal acknowledgment of their true purpose, 108 of the 118 existing institutes in the United States have either been shuttered or are in the process of being shut down.
While their ostensible mission was to promote Chinese language and culture, critics — including the State Department — alleged that the institutes also demanded that their host universities abide by terms that shielded them from scrutiny, censored academics, and acted as mouthpieces of the CCP.
CSSA’s stated purpose is similarly cultural. A key difference, however, is that their marks are not unwitting Americans but Chinese students studying in the U.S. Propaganda remains the means, but the retention of Chinese nationals, rather than the recruitment of Americans, is the end.
According to one recent Chinese graduate of Cornell University who spoke to National Review on the condition of anonymity, CSSA — which boasts about its formal relationship with the CCP — provides a refuge for homesick students, keeping them immersed in Chinese culture even while they remain on American soil.
No one could object to a group that makes foreign students feel at home by providing them with a community where they can enjoy traditional dishes and celebrate holidays, but CSSA’s influence also effectively silos those students off from the rest of campus and keeps them immersed in a repressive political environment.
“I think among Chinese students, at least at Cornell, there’s the awareness that if you were in CSSA, you’re more inclined to be the Party guy,” said the ex-Cornell student, who observed a shift in CSSA’s objectives over the years, as tensions between the U.S. and China escalated after the election of Donald Trump.
“People who joined CSSA in 2016 didn’t necessarily consider themselves the little red type of people, you know, the more nationalistic, patriotic, pro-party type of people,” he explained, before calling Hong Kong a “turning point.”
After the CCP cracked down on Hong Kongers objecting to its increased involvement in the city-state’s affairs, student leaders in the organization became increasingly militant and began participating in “open confrontational action on campus,” ripping up stickers and posters expressing support for protests in Hong Kong against increased Chinese interference in the city’s affairs.
Last October 1, the “National Day of the People’s Republic of China,” they even staged a counterprotest against student activists advocating for freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as against those protesting against the Uyghur genocide in China’s Xinjiang region. The student newspaper described the atmosphere as “tense” and included quotes from counterprotesters, including CSSA’s president, charging the protesters with hypocrisy and unfairly targeting Chinese students.
CSSA’s activity — on Cornell and other campuses around the country — dates back years.
In 2017, signs depicting Tibetans self-immolating disappeared overnight after being posted on Cornell’s Arts and Sciences Quad. One Chinese student wrote to the student newspaper to justify the act of vandalism, explaining that “what seems to be a campaign for human rights could possibly be considered a public endorsement to a known separatist and traitor by some members of the Cornell community.”
According to the recent graduate who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the CCP, it was an “open secret” among the Chinese community at Cornell that CSSA members were involved. He also argued that the fact that this never became public was demonstrative of the organization’s influence on campus.
“If you asked me in 2019, or even last year when I was at Cornell, whether or not that happened, . . . I would still probably say ‘no,’ but not necessarily because I fear CSSA,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s kind of like ‘I’m in the Chinese community at Cornell and I don’t want to do that.’”
Still, he acknowledged, there exist examples that would suggest that Chinese students who dare to cross the party line on campus might have much more to fear than social ostracism.
“There’s too much news these days in China — from 2019, 2020, 2021, this year — of some Chinese kids posting on Twitter and then they get a call from home, or the parents are in the police station, telling them to delete,” he said.
Linking the phenomenon to the consequence of CSSA’s presence on campus, he said that “the very fact that” the CSSA are “connected with CCP makes me aware of the fact that it’s a percentage game, right? Like if it was normal people, I have a 2 percent chance of them ratting me out. People in CSSA, given their opinions on things, 30 percent chance.” The university did not respond to a request for comment.
And recent history at Cornell is just the tip of the iceberg. As Shaw notes in his article for the Martin Center, examples of CSSA’s destructive impact on campus culture and Chinese students’ lives more generally date back years and can be found on campuses around the country.
In 2008, at Duke University, a Chinese student was labeled a “traitor” and had her parents’ state ID numbers posted on the CSSA chapter’s website after she attempted to foster dialogue between Chinese and Tibetan students. Her parents even received death threats.
At Columbia University, a 2019 event focused on human-rights abuses in China was canceled after the CSSA chapter worked feverishly toward that end. UC San Diego’s CSSA chapter received an award in 2017 for applying pressure to the university to stop the Dalai Lama from making political statements during his commencement address.
In another instance from that same spring, the University of Maryland’s CSSA chapter posted a video singling out a Chinese student for criticizing the Chinese government during her commencement address. The chapter received plaudits from a Chinese embassy official, who told other area chapters to follow their example, per Foreign Policy. It’s no wonder, then, that a Chinese student attending Georgetown told Voice of America in 2020 that he “wouldn’t feel safe to speak publicly or under recording.”
“If I say something sensitive about Hong Kong, I worry that the Chinese government will know something about my opinion and that will influence my work or my future in China,” he continued.
Even in the face of the unencumbered operations of CSSA on campuses, some young activists press on in spite of the danger to themselves and their families.
“I won’t be able to return home in the foreseeable future,” said Kao, who also made note of the danger his speech represents to his family. “I’m still going to do whatever I can to speak up for Hong Kong.”
Reprinted with Permission from - National Review by - Isaac Schorr