NEW YORK—A Chinese student group with close ties to the Chinese regime has been closed down at Columbia University for “ongoing violations,” according to a statement by the university. Specifics of the violations, described as financial and organizational in nature, were not provided.
The Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association is the most prominent of the CSSA organizations in the United States, which are often a proxy of local Chinese consulates for mobilizing and monitoring overseas student populations.
CSSAs put on parties, forums, and other social events for Chinese exchange students at the universities in which they are located. But security researchers say that CSSAs are also effectively extensions of China’s overseas diplomatic and espionage apparatus, and have long been an incubation and operating ground for intelligence agents.
The precise date that the group was shuttered is unclear. Its website was still active on March 15, but by March 23 its front page was replaced with a notice that the group had been closed.
“Unfortunately, this student organization has been de-recognized, which means the organization is currently not programming or engaging in any activities,” it said, in English and Chinese.
That notice may have been a long time coming. A faculty member at Columbia University said that the association was de-recognized either late last term or early this term, citing an individual close to CSSA leaders.
Yuye Ling, the current or former treasurer of the CSSA (he would not say which), when reached the second time on his cellphone Tuesday morning, said that the news that the group had been de-recognized came as a surprise to him, too.
“I was not informed. I don’t know at all … I know exactly what you know,” he said. “We’re still working with the university to finalize the announcement. We’re working with them.” He added that “the president” was coordinating the discussion with Columbia. He would not say which president—last December the group listed 11 presidents (two interim, one honorary, and eight vice), and as of March 24 it listed two.
“We will respond in some way at some time,” Ling said. They wouldn’t be able to use the CSSA’s former website, though. “Based on that announcement, we cannot use any platform.”
The Columbia University press office did not respond to a request for explanation, and the contact information for the administrative representatives of the Interschool Governing Board, the Columbia University body that governs a number of student organizations on campus, including the CUCSSA, was about eight years out of date, according to one of the individuals who was reached, who asked that their name not appear in a news article.
The website of the Interschool Governing Board provides a number of reasons why a student group may be de-recognized, including political lobbying, owing money to the board, threatening violence at the university, or acting as a cover for another group to use the university’s facilities. A group can also be expelled “if it intentionally misleads or misrepresents its intentions to the IGB.”
Whether one of these infractions is what caused the de-recognition, or a more pedestrian matter related to an unpaid invoice, is still unclear.
CSSAs, however, do have a strong association with Chinese spying and political mobilization activities.
The CUCSSA mobilized its members to disrupt a forum titled “China’s New Genocide” held at Columbia on April 20, 2007, focused on evidence about the organ harvesting of practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that is heavily persecuted in China. At the time the group’s advisory board consisted of just two members: both officials from the Chinese Consulate in New York City.
Around two dozen CSSA members went to the forum with placards carrying official regime slogans and hate speech against Falun Gong, and two of them were ejected for unruly behavior. The website at the time also boasted around nine articles slandering the practice, copied directly from the website of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Apart from Communist Party-directed political mobilization, CSSAs have been implicated in espionage.In 2005, Belgian intelligence officials made known that a Chinese espionage agent who belonged to a CSSA had defected. He was a leader at the Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association at the University of Leuven, which “allegedly served as a front for co-ordinating industrial espionage activities across Western Europe,” according to Lab Times, a European science magazine.
With no official explanation on record, overseas Chinese students took to rumor and speculation online. The “zhihu” website, a kind of Chinese Quora, where users anonymously pose and answer questions, included accusations that the association had run a seedy dating service, introducing female students to wealthy Chinese men; others said, “It’s due to internal division. A CSSA leader misappropriated public funds, and was reported to the school by another person who failed in the CSSA election.” Others took the opportunity to complain about the Party-controlled groups in general, with one calling it “a waste of resources,” and another “a poisonous tumor.”