Cambridge University Chinese Students Defy Beijing’s Control

December 5, 2011 7:28 pm Last Updated: December 10, 2011 9:42 pm

CAMBRIDGE, England—While democracy remains far from China, Chinese students at Cambridge University got a taste of it recently in their student elections, effectively wresting control of the Chinese student club in an open election process, after the former president, widely thought to be acting as a proxy for the Chinese Embassy, attempted to “re-elect” herself.

The real election for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Cambridge University (CSSA-CAM) was held on Dec. 2 after months of controversy and amid a storm of Chinese media coverage.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is known to exert a commanding influence over Chinese student clubs around the world. These clubs are then used to “struggle” against groups on campus that are designated enemies of the regime, such as Falun Gong practitioners and democracy activists. They are also used to fill out welcoming groups for visiting Chinese officials and in other shows of support for the Chinese regime, and they engage in other, nonpolitical activities.

This time the pro-Beijing candidate and former club president, Chang Feifan, lost. The positions of president, vice president, secretary, and junior treasurer were all filled by candidates who had been vocal in calling for democratic elections after the student club was almost hijacked.

The controversy began after a student meeting on July 11, when Chang asked the executive committee of the club to raise their hands as to whether they supported her work, according to an account of the incident in Southern Weekend, a popular newspaper in Guangzhou, China. Everyone raised their hands to indicate that they thought she had done a good job. But Chang interpreted it differently.

Soon after she declared in an email to the student club that she had been “unanimously re-elected” to continue as president, and that this year no general election needed to be held.

A Chinese university student in the United Kingdom requested anonymity in an email about the CSSAs. The student asserted that it was common for CSSAs in the United Kingdom not to have elections, and cited as evidence the website for the headquarters of CSSAs in the U.K., which has no provision on it for elections or any constitution or policy for the CSSAs to use in regulating themselves.

Former officers of CSSAs in the United States have told The Epoch Times that election by a committee of past presidents is the common means for choosing a new president—a method that offers Chinese consular officials the opportunity to control candidate selections.

But Cambridge has a tradition of general elections at its CSSA, and the students didn’t take the challenge lying down. Chen Qi, head of the Internet club at Cambridge and member of the CSSA, said he was “shocked” after seeing former president Chang’s email. A battle to hold a general election began, and students began petitioning Cambridge.

As a result of the protests the university deregistered the club and an election was scheduled for Dec. 2.

Electioneering activities were supposed to cease in late November, but Chang did not obey that rule, according to an email sent by junior proctor Oren A. Scherman, and reviewed by The Epoch Times.

“It is important for all members of the CSSA to be aware that the campaign for one of the candidates (Feifan Chang) for the office of president has now violated this rule on several accounts since Nov. 19,” the email said.

Chang had used a Gmail account, a Groupspaces account, and the official CSSA Facebook account to promote herself in the lead-up to the election.

“These actions are highly inappropriate and all CSSA members in Cambridge should be made aware of these infringements prior to the election,” Scherman wrote in the email.

Over 400 students crowded into the hall on Dec. 2. During the question and answer before voting began, one student asked whether the CSSA belonged to the Chinese Embassy or to the university. Chen Lubin and Yang Xin, challengers for the president’s office, said that the CSSA belongs to the university.

Chang Feifan is reported to have said, “All of us will return to China after we graduate to repay what we owe, so none of us can leave the embassy,” according to a transcript of the proceedings posted to Sina Weibo by user “purplecam,” who paraphrased the question and answer. The details of the proceedings were later removed from the microblogging platform.

Chang is regarded as a pro-Beijing chairman and activist, according to interviews with students conducted by The Epoch Times and news reports online.

At one point during her presentation she was jeered by students while attempting to justify her dubious pre-election politicking, using the official CSSA Facebook page. The administrative privileges of some of the other students on the email system were also removed around this time, apparently by Chang or someone promoting her campaign.

Students sitting in the audience heckled her with “stop lying!” at several points during her speech, according to the record on Weibo.

Chang Feifan did not respond to emails and Facebook messages requesting comment. Chen Lubin, the new president, also did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Tim Holt, head of communications at Cambridge, said that the student club did not previously have an acceptable constitution (it was only in Chinese) when the dispute was brought to the administration’s attention, and so the group was deregistered. The students are now working with the university to construct an appropriate, English-language document, he said.

Southern Weekend reported that when the former association officer in charge of the Internet, Chen Qi, compared the CSSA-CAM constitution with that of other CSSAs, he found that the CSSA-CAM constitution was “copied directly from mainland China.”

The Epoch Times was unable to review the club’s constitution.

The incident continues to percolate on the Chinese Internet, on blogs, Weibo, and news aggregation sites, as Chinese inside the country observe the ways the Communist Party seeks to extend its influence beyond China’s borders.

A poll accompanying the Southern Weekend article on Yahoo China asks for opinions on the key cause behind the controversy. The answer with the most votes, 2,698, says “The work-style of officials has been exported outside China.”