Purdue University has weighed in to support a Chinese student who faced harassment on campus over his criticism against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), saying that those who censor speech on behalf of the communist regime should “pursue education elsewhere.”
“One of our students, after speaking out on behalf of freedom and others martyred for advocating it, was harassed and threatened by other students from his own home country,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said in a Dec. 15 email to the campus community. “Worse still, his family back home, in this case China, was visited and threatened by agents of the nation’s secret police.”
The email comes weeks after ProPublica published a story about Kong Zhihao, a graduate student who was targeted by other students from China for posting online a letter, in which he “praised the heroism” of students killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in the summer of 1989.
According to ProPublica, the pro-Beijing Chinese students followed Kong around campus, calling him “a CIA agent” and threatening to report him to the Chinese embassy. Agents of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the secret police arm of the Chinese communist regime, also visited Kong’s parents and told them to make their son stop or that they would be all in trouble.
Specifically, the MSS demanded that Kong not participate in an online commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre anniversary organized by dissents critical to the CCP, who invited him as a guest speaker. Kong told ProPublica he ended up turning down the invitation.
It is regrettable that the university didn’t know what was happening to Kong until his story was featured in national news, Daniels said.
“We regret that we were unaware at the time of these events and had to learn of them from national sources,” he wrote in the email. “That reflects the atmosphere of intimidation that we have discovered surrounds this specific sort of speech.”
“Any such intimidation is unacceptable and unwelcome to our campus,” Daniels continued. “Anyone taking exception to the speech in question had their own right to express their disagreement, but not to engage in the actions of harassment which occurred here.”
Noting that Purdue has punished conduct that was “less personal, direct and threatening,” Daniels promised that those who harassed Kong will face “appropriate disciplinary action” once they are identified.
“Likewise, any student found to have reported another student to any foreign entity for exercising their freedom of speech or belief will be subject to significant sanction,” he warned.
International students are nothing new to Purdue, but they have to conform to the university’s values if they wish to be a part of the campus community, the email states.
“Joining the Purdue community requires acceptance of its rules and values, and no value is more central to our institution or to higher education generally than the freedom of inquiry and expression. Those seeking to deny those right to others, let alone to collude with foreign governments in repressing them, will need to pursue their education elsewhere,” Daniels concluded his message.
As of this fall, several hundred international students are enrolled in Purdue, including about 200 students from China. The university stopped hosting the Beijing-funded Confucius Institute in 2019, but maintains an academic partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the top-tier universities directly managed by China’s Ministry of Education.