Shouting for Xi Dada: How the CCP works to keep overseas students loyal

Interview with Didi Kirsten Tatlow on Hong Kong, the CCP and her work on PRC student organisations in Germany.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Senior Fellow at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, is a Berlin-based researcher and journalist from Hong Kong. Last September, she discussed her article for The Atlantic on the CCP’s use of student and professional organisations as influence tools abroad in an interview with Karolína Kašparová.

Why does the political regime in China need to control their students abroad? What do they want to achieve?

They want to retain the political and emotional loyalty of students and other Chinese overseas to the CCP, to ensure that the Party’s power can continue and that the next generation doesn’t reject it. So they have to “manage” and, when necessary, dominate them. Tied to that power back home is great wealth and a lot of interests, including stability, as they define it. They are also growing China’s influence abroad, to be a global power that rivals, challenges, even overtakes the U.S., and they see ideological loyalty or obedience among their own people as key to that.

China is trying hard to ensure the loyalty of its students, but why wasn’t the country’s propaganda effective in 1989, when Chinese students in New Zealand, by contrast, were the ones organising the anti-government demonstrations? Why is it so rare now?

A big part of the answer is economic development. Back then, China was still poor. Since China joined the WTO in the early 2000s it has grown rich and people have “more to lose”. When you couple that with repression and disinformation at home, it’s a very powerful way to suppress criticism of the government. Combine people’s self-interest with your political interest and most people will go along.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady from New Zealand says that the students in 1989 were patriots. One of the sources in your article for The Atlantic, where you focus on Germany, claims that nowadays Chinese students abroad ‘run the risk of being persecuted by fellow Chinese for wanting to be white’. Is it not a problem that Chinese students have to choose only between these two alternatives, as there is no space for patriotism and recognition of Chinese culture which would also be critical of the Chinese government?

It’s a huge problem. Chinese people should absolutely be able to both respect and love their culture and identity, and be critical and have different views — but the party is afraid of that because it can’t control the outcome. This situation is deliberate. The party claims “Chineseness” for itself and in this way robs people of the ability to be publicly and proudly both Chinese and critical, that is, to think and speak freely.

Is there anyone who tries to claim “Chineseness” in another way? If not among students, then among artists, for example.

The entire situation in Hong Kong is about being a different kind of “Chinese”, also Taiwan, democratic, open, free, local, diverse, and so on. These are “Chinese” cultures outside the PRC ideological bubble. You can read into Hong Kong and Taiwan culture for more.

Are other Chinese citizens (non-students) abroad monitored in the same way?

Students are especially important to the party because they are the knowledge bearers and transmitters of the future. Chinese tradition gives them a special status in society — they have often led intellectual dissent against the government, and it’s not a coincidence that students play a a major role in the Hong Kong protests, too. Ultimately it is a question whether mainland students are aware of their position, if they support it, or if they don’t and then whether they choose to live in truth or in a lie, as Václav Havel put it. Of course, it’s not so simple when you have family back home, you’re an only child who has to support many old people and have a family of your own and pay for all of that – you don’t rock the boat. A lot of this monitoring is accepted by the students, in the sense they may not even be fully aware of what’s happening. It’s internalized and feels like normal life, whether in China or overseas.

Why do you think that universities in Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which often stress the importance of human rights and progressive values (such as Freie Universität that you mention in your article), avoid addressing the fact that Chinese societies and clubs often spread nationalist propaganda?

I was disappointed in the Freie Universität Berlin (FUB) that it did not respond to my many requests to them to comment on the role of the Chinese student association in their own university. If everything is OK, then why not respond, say something, look into it? Why keep silent? One possible answer is that they know it’s not OK but they don’t want to deal with it. Another is they are afraid of angering their Chinese academic partners, which is I think exactly the wrong reaction. It’s very important to be clear about your own values. And here I note it’s really ironic that it’s called the Free University. A worst-case scenario is that they actually support this kind of underground CCP activity. But all three options make them complicit in a form of power that has many victims. Of course, a university is a big and complex place, but asking student associations to declare their political affiliation and managing that right, and being able to talk about it in public, seems basic to me.

What do you think, in this particular case, should the FUB have done? Are there any ideas for policies and rules which could be implemented to at least reduce the political influence of these societies? Or does it need to be addressed by the German government directly?

Firstly, the FUB should have answered my questions, to get the issue into the public arena. It’s bad when a top education institute in a democracy, that is paid by taxpayer euros, fails to take up its obligations to answer important questions and engage in debate in public. Regarding the issue of reducing the impact of this ideology in Germany or elsewhere outside China – there is much that can be done, none of it easy, all of it will come at a cost. Are we willing to pay that temporary cost to protect the open society, digital privacy and rule of law everywhere in the world including at home? To me the answer is obvious: “yes, we should”. But too many people in Europe have not understood this yet and are still in denial. When you get a good society delivered to you for free, you don’t understand how valuable it is. However, the actual actions we can take need to be talked about properly and seriously, and require more than a fast answer here. Awareness is 50 percent of the challenge: the other 50 percent is action. German public institutions should be aware of these issues, and willing to comment on them in public in order to create awareness. That is the first contribution they can make, then they can examine their finances to see how much money they derive from the CCP, directly and indirectly. And like businesses need to do now, they should diversify their affiliations. These are the first small steps.

“We need to find a better balance between private investment and public, democratic good”

In the US, for example, research has been done proving that many professors stereotype Chinese students as cheaters. There have been complaints about racism aimed at Asian students in the UK as well. At the same time, there truly is an entire industry in the US which enables many Chinese students to cheat. Moreover, in New Zealand and Australia especially, China uses these students to censor free speech on campuses. The country also sends their military experts to study in the so called Five Eyes countries and Europe so they would bring back information about strategic research (The Five Eyes comprise Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US). How to talk about these issues openly, but also avoid racism, so that Chinese students do not feel even more estranged and automatically suspected of espionage just because of their nationality?

It’s definitely a complex situation and there are not many easy answers, especially since racism does exist and is a truly disgusting thing. I think we have to talk about these issues but be careful always to make clear that this is not a race issue but a political problem, a systemic problem not an ethnic one. The Party deliberately mixes those two things up to strengthen its voice, it uses race or ethnicity as a way to appeal for loyalty from Chinese. In a way it racializes the debate itself. We must not do the same and mix these issues up, blaming all Chinese for an ideological and political system.

Aren’t these universities interested in the money that Chinese students pay in the uncertain economic times (where local students – such as in the US – often struggle to pay for college) to the extent that they are willing to give up their free speech and human rights ideals? In the UK, for example, Chinese students pay full tuition fees, unlike the capped £9,250 a year paid by Britons and EU nationals, and the number of Chinese students in the UK is higher than ever. China also tries to use universities in the UK to manipulate British media and public officials through “investments”.

Yes. This is where the form of capitalism we have been practising for decades now is hurting us — a kind of “turbo” capitalism, commodifying education to a high degree, running universities like businesses, and so on. If you become too dependent on investment from overseas, if that’s your model, then you will have problems. We need to find a better balance between private investment and public, democratic good. The key is transparency. In a way when it comes to all these issues, including some of the question above, the CCP challenges is a challenge to us to be more transparent, more democratic, more honest, to be better than we are.

What is the best way to implement this kind of transparency and make universities less like businesses again? Ultimately, this is a problem which affects the security of the country, the quality of life of local students (higher fees), perhaps also the quality of education itself (universities that try to censor free speech do not provide the kind of education, which fosters a democratic society). Would student activism help, or does the pressure need to be broader?

Of course student activism would help. Students should become more aware and involved and learn more, experience more the reality of politics and life under a dictatorship, and question the way that money is shaping their learning experiences, and I include the US very much in the latter point. The neoliberal ethos is starving public finances and contributing to global inequality in ways that damage democracy.

“Westerners have been naive”

Young people from Hong Kong, in their own country, are extremely active with regard to political protests, including secondary schoolers. Do we know anything about the relationship between young people from Hong Kong who study abroad and the rest of Chinese students? Is there any political pressure on the students from Hong Kong when they study in a foreign country? Do they, for example, have their own societies and activism?

Hong Kong students overseas mostly stay away from these CCP student organisations. They know they are not their natural homes. They have to be quite careful however not to make that too obvious. They have their own activism, especially today it has really taken off, but they are also a target of pressure from the CCP groups. Look at the quarrels and fights recently in Australia and elsewhere, including in Germany that I saw, at pro-HK democracy demonstrations; the CCP student side can get nasty. A reason why HK students have fewer societies is that they aren’t managed, they’re more natural, or “normal”. There’s no government or party system setting up groups for Hong Kong students, so they don’t exist in the same way. It’s actually a sign of freedom.

The news about Hong Kong has been all over Western media. Do you think that as 1 October approaches [at the time of the interview — Ed.] (the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China), China will try to unify their students abroad even more before the beginning of the new academic year?

It’s an ongoing thing, the Party will certainly push all the patriotic buttons, with all kinds of messages and exhortations, events and so on. A lot of this is under the radar in Europe because so few Europeans speak or read Chinese, so they don’t know what’s going on.

Do you think that what has happened in Hong Kong will make the situation better or worse for any dissenting or critical voices among Chinese students abroad? Will it change how universities and Western governments address the aforementioned issues?

Too early to tell. I hope that the situation in Hong Kong wakes people in Europe and elsewhere up to political realities that they begin to realise they must protect their own freedoms, which – let’s be honest – they take pretty much for granted. It’s a form of privilege, when you don’t have to care about these things. Westerners have been naive. But rule of law, freedom of speech (which enables you to tell the truth and fix problems), to flourish as a person, transparency in government and in the police, all these issues, they are what Hong Kong is now facing the loss of, and I hope that people around the world react by understanding and insisting on their importance not just at home but everywhere.

Interview by Karolína Kašparová.

Since this interview was conducted, and half a year after the piece about Chinese influencing ran in The Atlantic, Tatlow received an email from the Free University of Berlin’s press office with comment about the situation of the Chinese student union at the university that she had reported in July. Here is the full response from the FUB, kindly provided by Tatlow. The press spokesman asked not to be identified by name:

The call to take to the streets for the Chinese fatherland and welcome President Xi and his wife Ms. Peng is an impulse of love for the fatherland [ein Impuls von Vaterlandsliebe]; such loyalty and patriotism expressed this way are very widespread in China. Xi Jinping – with his wife Peng – is clearly here as president of the fatherland, and thus is referred to as the official representative of China – not as the secretary-general of the Party [one of Xi’s three concurrent titles, the third being head of the military]. It’s very common during state visits that groups of Chinese students gather on the streets to greet the president. What’s on view then are banners and placards with (something like) ‘many thanks for your work, Mr. President’, or ‘Chinese students welcome you, Mr. President’.

The Chinese student association of the Free University of Berlin has been helped in its organization and execution of events since October 2012 by the Ernst-Reuter-Society of friends, supporters and former [students?] of the Free University of Berlin e.V. [The last letters indicate charitable status.]

Karolína Kašparová started her journalistic career as the Editor-in-Chief of The Student Times. She now lives in London and works as a freelance contributor for Finmag and Deník N.

Further reading:

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “The Chinese Influence Effort Hiding in Plain Sight”, The Atlantic, 12 July 2019.

—, “Mapping China-in-Germany” (paper presented at the workshop “Mapping China’s footprint in the world II”), Sinopsis, 2 Oct 2019.

—, “China Technology in Germany”, presentation at the Sinopsis conference “Beyond Huawei: Europe’s adoption of PRC technology and its implications”, 27 Nov 2019.

Alex Joske and Philip Wen, “The ‘patriotic education’ of Chinese students at Australian universities”, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Oct 2016.

Alex Joske and Wu Lebao 吴乐宝, “The truth about the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Woroni, 12 Oct 2017.