The University of California–San Diego has invited the Dalai Lama to speak at commencement in June, and a group of Chinese students at the university is rallying to stop his speech. There may be more to the events than meets the eye, however, as a social media posting said to be from the student group states it has been given directions by the Chinese Consulate.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet and has been in exile since March 1959, when he fled Tibet fearing the Chinese occupiers intended to abduct him. Tibet was invaded by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) People’s Liberation Army in October 1950. The CCP pushes a line that it “liberated” Tibet and heavily censors information on the topic, while calling the Dalai Lama a “separatist.”
The group trying to prevent the speech is a local branch of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA), a nationwide student organization known to receive funding and directives from the CCP through its consulates in the United States.
The CSSA has openly stated it is working under the guidance of the Chinese regime.
It published a statement on WeChat (a Chinese instant messaging platform) that states, translated from Chinese, that “the Chinese Student and Scholar Association has asked the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles for instructions and, having received the instructions, is going to implement them.”
It tells students to not act outside official guidance of the CCP, and says “specific measures to be taken will be elaborated on in future announcements.”
“Our association has been forced to take tough and unyielding measures,” it states.
The statement appears to have been taken offline, but a web archive of the page is still available.
The “About Us” page for the CSSA at the university, translated from Chinese, says it is a “public benefit organization” and is “affiliated to the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles.” It also says it works as a “Chinese Embassy bridge.”
According to the report “China’s Espionage Dynasty: Economic Death by a Thousand Cuts,” published by cybersecurity think tank Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), there are active CSSAs at more than 150 U.S. universities.
Officially, the CSSAs help native Chinese students by acting as a bridge between China and foreign institutions. On the other hand, “CSSAs may also be a pivotal overt espionage platform for the Chinese government,” says the ICIT report.
“The vast majority of CSSAs receive funding from the Chinese government or have an active liaison via the consulate back to the CCP,” it states.
It adds that CSSAs may work to “persuade students to act as temporary or prolonged intelligence assets,” and that “through CSSAs, students can be manipulated into passing intellectual property or research back to their home state or planting malware on a university system.”
According to an FBI podcast on April 14, 2014, it’s not uncommon for foreign intelligence agencies to manipulate students to achieve their objectives—and the students are often unaware they are being used until they’re already in over their heads.
“To foster the relationship, foreign intelligence operatives will flatter and encourage students, show interest in their future success, and even promise to help them obtain a government-issued visa or work permit—but it’s all disingenuous and empty promises,” said Mollie Halpem, host of the “Inside the FBI” podcast.
She added, “The truth is, the operatives are just using the student as a pawn to achieve their own ends, without concern for the student’s welfare or future.”
Controlling the Narrative
Preventing a speech by the Dalai Lama at a U.S. university may not seem like a big deal, but for the CCP, its use of censorship and controlled narratives are cornerstones of its hold on power. The Party simultaneously pushes its own narratives on issues, peppered with disinformation, while also using extreme censorship to stop the true narratives from being known.
The issue of Tibet—which includes the CCP’s suppression of Tibetan Buddhists—is one of the CCP’s five “no-go topics,” which also includes its persecution of Falun Gong, its persecution of Muslim Uyghurs, the issue of Taiwanese independence, and the issue of democracy in Hong Kong.
The CCP’s censorship apparatus stretches beyond its own borders, and looks to control similar narratives being raised by foreign governments and news outlets.
“In many cases, Chinese officials directly impede independent reporting by media based abroad,” states a 2013 report from the Center for International Media Assistance.
It adds, however, that “more prevalent–and often more effective–are methods of control that subtly induce self-censorship or inspire media owners, advertisers, and other international actors to take action on the CCP’s behalf.”