The world’s lamest Trojan horse
- If Beijing truly wants to orchestrate an influence campaign among Chinese students in America, it needs to step up its game.
Jun 25, 2019-
In February 2012, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, Xi Jinping, the vice president of China at the time and now president, paid a visit to Muscatine, a small town where he’d briefly stayed while on a research trip in 1985.Muscatine is an hour’s drive from Iowa City, and my university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association invited a few dozen Chinese students along to welcome Xi. I didn’t attend, but my friend Vivian went, thrilled at the thought of meeting a high-ranking Chinese official and excited about spending a few hours outside our small college town.
The reality was anticlimactic: Vivian stood for hours in a cold drizzle, waving a Chinese flag. She didn’t meet Xi, though she did catch a glimpse of his car for a few seconds. Vivian was unaware that her sorry little excursion came with a reward until weeks later, when another friend asked whether she’d claimed $50 from the association reimbursing her for her time and effort; by the time she learned about it, it was too late to claim the money.
I’d forgotten about all of this until news articles and United States government reports surfaced last year describing events like the one Vivian attended in ominous tones, as part of the Chinese government’s “paid political mobilization” efforts overseas. Technically, this isn’t wrong. But the gap between what such language conjures up and the banal reality of the student associations known as CSSAs is fairly vast.
Over the past two years, Chinese students in the West, and CSSAs in particular, have become the focus of an alarming new narrative. Last February, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, warned of Chinese students in the United States engaging in espionage. Vice President Mike Pence in his speech on United States-China relations last October took aim at CSSAs specifically, accusing them of “alerting Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.” The CSSA, we are told, is the dangerous tool of an authoritarian state, a Trojan horse poised to spill infiltrators upon American soil.
I’m Chinese, and have been a student at three American universities, as late as 2017. I never joined a CSSA, but I’ve been reporting on Chinese students in American universities since 2013.
The image of these organizations serving as the pernicious hand of the Chinese state, reaching into the heart of American academia, is hard to square with what most Chinese students know as the mundane nature of these clubs. This is not to say that CSSAs are innocent, or independent. Some have played a role in rallying Chinese students to protest against speakers on controversial subjects, for instance, such as Tibetan independence or human rights violations in China. But as Americans grow increasingly alarmed about Chinese student organizations, it’s worth offering a more complex picture of just what these groups do. The answer is often: not much.
There are about 150 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on American campuses. The first were founded as mutual aid organizations by an earlier wave of Chinese scholars, mostly graduate students on scholarships, sent abroad to study after the Cultural Revolution. But they didn’t garner much attention until after 2008, when the Chinese student population, particularly paying undergraduates, increased substantially across the United States.
This influx of Chinese students overwhelmed universities that were not prepared to accommodate them. And so CSSAs essentially began to function as service groups: They met newcomers at airports; they helped with housing and furnishings; they recommended the most authentic Chinese restaurants.
Far from being a centralized organization, a CSSA is a collection of shifting participants. Most chapters change leadership annually. Some student officers genuinely devote themselves to helping their compatriots; others simply want to pad their résumés to help them land jobs as state functionaries upon returning to China.
The undisputed highlight of the CSSA’s role is hosting the annual Lunar New Year dinner and show; second to this is the Midautumn Festival gala. Most Chinese students’ sole contact, if any, with their local CSSA is through those events. Some have no contact at all—quite a few of my friends and I did not bother to attend those gatherings; the programming was known to be overblown and amateurish.
But for many, especially freshmen and sophomores away from home for the first time, these functions offer a precious space to celebrate Chinese holidays. For a few hours, wayfarers abroad become insiders rather than outsiders. Those at big Midwestern universities like mine get some respite from their status as foreigners who don’t frequent bars or play beer pong.
The current narrative posits a close relationship, shrouded in secrecy, between the CSSA and Chinese consulates. In fact, this affiliation is not much of a secret. CSSA leaders may meet occasionally with consular officials for briefings on employment laws or safety issues. Some CSSAs receive funding from consulates for things like new student orientations or galas.
And yes, some of their contact with consulates is indeed political. But CSSAs recruiting students to welcome visiting Chinese officials is hardly proof of government manipulation. Students may sign on for these events out of genuine patriotism or curiosity or boredom, or they may ignore the invitations, as most do. For many students like Vivian, welcoming Xi was hardly different from attending former President Barack Obama’s speech on campus later that same year. Even those who turn up to protest against the Dalai Lama may well do so out of a sense of patriotism, not because they were mobilized by the CSSA.
In some respects, the CSSA resembles a microcosm of Chinese officialdom, complete with petty bureaucrats, political infighting, and even occasional malfeasance. But that is precisely why most Chinese students put little stock in the organization. These days, like Chinese citizens generally, most Chinese students prefer to steer clear of politics. They view the CSSA as an arena where a handful of ambitious souls can practice vying for power, while the rest go about their daily lives.
Do CSSAs make some Chinese students studying overseas uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes. A growing number of Chinese students avoid the organization out of concern that it does harbor informants and spies (and there are almost certainly some on U.S. campuses). Or, they simply keep it at arm’s length because they worry about coming under suspicion of being spies or infiltrators themselves. Caught in the crosscurrents between their host country and their home country, such students are trapped in a Catch-22, where they have no spaces where they feel they truly belong.
But if the Communist Party truly wants to orchestrate collective displays of nationalism among Chinese students abroad, it sorely needs to step up its game. To date, this supposed stealth mission has fallen flat, certainly with me and many others I know.
The uproar over CSSAs speaks to a larger issue in U.S.-China relations, however. Some 360,000 Chinese students currently study in the United States. The assertion that the Communist Party is somehow exerting control over this vast number from afar denies these students their individual agency, their independent thought and their own complex emotions and motives. This denial is dehumanizing—and further dehumanization is the last thing we need at a time of increasingly fraught relations between the U.S. and China.
In hindsight, as a journalist, I feel mild regret over abstaining from the parade to welcome Xi in Iowa seven years ago. I passed up the chance to glimpse a bit of history, and to shiver in the rain, shoulder to shoulder with fellow alienated souls. Yet I also feel lucky that the subzero temperatures deterred me from going to Muscatine. Or I, too, could today find myself used as evidence of Beijing’s influence campaign in America’s heartland.
— © 2019 The New York Times
Published: 25-06-2019 09:25