University of Rochester Student Dispute Highlights CCP Influence on American Campuses

By Alex Wu
Alex Wu
Alex Wu
Alex Wu is a U.S.-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on Chinese society, Chinese culture, human rights, and international relations.
September 29, 2020Updated: October 5, 2020

China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been infiltrating and exerting influence on western universities through Chinese student organizations for years, and now the University of Rochester is in the spotlight over a recent incident.

On the University of Rochester (UR) campus in upstate New York, there is an underground tunnel connecting the north and south campuses. A few days ago, the school put out a notice saying that because of COVID-19, students were prohibited from painting on the walls of the tunnel.

The notice triggered dissatisfaction among some students because this was once a “freedom wall” for “Human Rights in China” on campus. Some students believe that the motives behind the seemingly legitimate move by the university were suspicious, according to UR student newspaper Campus Times—especially considering the series of conflicts between students of various ethnicities and students from mainland China at the end of last year.

According to the Campus Times report, on Sept. 2, the Dean of Academic Affairs Matthew Burns announced via an email that due to COVID-19 concerns related to “inadequate space and ventilation,” the walls along the underground tunnel between Eastman Quad and Hoyt that have been used by students to express their political views and personal art will be closed this fall.

Campus Events

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, in November last year, the Wilson Student Center of the university moved the flags of Taiwan and Hong Kong from the “national flag” area to the “regional flag” and marked it separately on the university’s official website as “Sub-National Entities,” angering students who support freedom in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Chinese regime considers Taiwan as a part of its territory, despite its de-facto nation-state status, while it has denounced pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

As a response, some students painted on the walls of the underground tunnel on the evening of Nov. 21, 2019, the slogans of “Glory to Hong Kong,” “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” “Go Taiwan,” and so on to express their opinions.

When the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) and Chinese Students Association (CSA) at UR heard the news, they called for a group of mainland Chinese students within one day to write pro-CCP slogans in both Chinese and English on top of the previous messages, such as “Long live the great unity of the people of the world,” “One world, one dream,” and “I am from Xinjiang, I love China.”

University of Rochester campus
Messaging by Chinese students on the University of Rochester campus in November 2019. (Provided to The Epoch Times)
University of Rochester
Messaging by Chinese students on the University of Rochester campus in November 2019. (Provided to The Epoch Times)

In addition, last September, students from mainland China interrupted an academic event about Tibet on campus and harassed participants of the event, according to RFA.

Since the Chinese Communist Party invaded the Tibet region, it has severely suppressed local customs and Tibetan Buddhist practices.

Members of the “College Republicans” group planned a seminar about human rights in Tibet, called the Tibet Human Rights Conference. Before the event, a student from mainland China distributed fliers calling the event “terrorism.”

After the event, a Korean-American student named Se Hoon Kim and other members invited three Tibetan monks to meet at the campus’s Starbucks. At the time, a mainland student holding a slogan saying “Tibet is part of China” moved his chair to sit right next to the monks, and then chased them outside.

Afterward, Kim reported the mainland Chinese student to the university for harassment, Kim told The Epoch Times in a recent interview.

The university’s Office of Student Affairs did not respond to a request for comment regarding the above-mentioned events.

Chinese Student Organizations Serve CCP’s Agenda

There is a CSSA at almost every western university for Chinese mainland students. The CSSA is known for its connection to the Chinese communist government.

As shown in its LinkedIn profile, the CSSA at UR openly admitted that it is “under the management of Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York.”

(ScreenShot/Provided to The Epoch Times)

After the incident last November with the UR tunnel walls, some students initiated a petition on asking for UR to permanently ban the CSSA.

After this appeal, the CSSA retained all other original texts and only deleted the sentence about its relationship with the Chinese consulate.

However, this student organization led by the CCP is not so careful on Chinese social media WeChat. In the UR-CSSA WeChat statement a month ago, the organization clearly stated in Chinese: “The Chinese Students and Scholars Association of the University of Rochester-UR-CSSA is the only official Chinese student organization covering undergraduates, graduate students, doctoral students and visiting scholars at the University of Rochester. It also serves as a bridge between the Chinese Consulate General in New York and Chinese students.”

Epoch Times Photo
(Screenshot provided to The Epoch Times)

The lesser-known CSA also serves the CCP’s agenda. After the UR seminar on human rights in Tibet last September, Hao Simeng, then-chairman of the CSA, wrote a letter of complaint about the seminar to the school’s All-Campus Judicial Council. It cited the reason for the complaint was that the event had not been “academic dialogue” as the organizer called it, but was a “political” event. He asked the school to “cancel” another Uyghur human rights seminar that was about to be held at that time.


Epoch Times Photo
A screenshot of the letter from the University of Rochester Chinese Student Association. (Provided to The Epoch Times)

David, who participated in the seminar on Tibet, told The Epoch Times that the activities at the time were indeed an academic activity “because it gave everyone in the school an opportunity to listen and study, to decide what is right and wrong, and to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the speaker at the meeting.”

He and other students also questioned the role of the CSA. “The CSA is open to Chinese students of all backgrounds, such as Singaporean or Korean Chinese. Therefore, CSA should not be connected with the Chinese Communist consulate. They should not be a political organization,” David said. “But they also seem to be strictly following certain guidelines. This worries me,” he added.

Hao, the chairman of such a student organization that strictly follows the thinking of the Chinese Communist Party, was expelled from it last year because he accepted an interview with the South China Morning Post, which is considered a foreign media by the CCP. He commented implicitly about his expulsion, “Many Chinese are brainwashed by the Chinese government.”

The CSSA immediately issued a statement on WeChat, clarifying its relationship with the CSA, saying that the two associations have nothing to do with each other, and promised to “continue to do its best to help the motherland and Chinese compatriots and contribute to the beautiful development of the motherland.”

Some Chinese students in American universities either directly accept leadership from the CCP or exercise self-censorship, a New York Times article pointed out in 2017.

Pressure on Campus

Last September, student dean Matthew Burns had expressed to the organizer of the Tibet Human Rights Conference that he understood the mainland Chinese students’ concerns about the event. “Our Chinese students are fearful…that their government is watching what they do. And if they attend your program, their degree may be meaningless in their country,” he said in an audio recording leaked to The Epoch Times, of a conversation between the College Republicans and school officials that occurred before the event.

Burns also mentioned that after the University of Calgary in Canada awarded the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, an honorary degree in 2009, the CCP removed the university from its list of recognized foreign universities. Many Chinese students had to transfer from the university because they were worried they would not be able to find a job in China in the future, although the school’s recognition was restored in 2011.

The Chinese regime views the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist and forbids Tibetans from venerating him or displaying photos of him.

Burns also cited the example of the University of California in San Diego. In 2017, the school invited the Dalai Lama to give a speech at the graduation ceremony. The Chinese Ministry of Education Scholarship Council then canceled a grant program for new Chinese scholars to attend the university.

He added that such human rights events may lead to “the Chinese government no longer recogniz[ing] the University of Rochester as a degree-granting institution. That’s a real fear, because they’ve done it before.”

Burns did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the Tibetan event.

Lin Yijun and Shi Ping contributed to this report.