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Cornell cancels China exchange programs after crackdown on student activists

Cornell University from atop McGraw Tower looking southeast; Barnes Hall, Sage Hall. (sach1tb/Flickr)
October 31, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Cornell University has suspended an academic partnership with China’s Renmin University (Renda) after a crackdown on Chinese students who supported a workers’ movement at a factory in the southern province of Guangdong.

Eli Friedman, director of international programs for Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, confirmed the move via his Twitter account on Monday.

“I first contacted Renmin about my concerns on Aug. 30, and formally suspended the program on Oct. 20,” Friedman tweeted in response to allegations that he had announced the move first to the media. “That is false,” his tweet said.

Earlier, Friedman had told Inside HigherEd journalist Elizabeth Redden that his school had suspended cooperation with Renda after it had “punished, surveilled or suppressed students who supported workers’ rights in a labor conflict … involving workers trying to unionize at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen.”

The Jasic Workers’ Solidarity Group (JWSG) attracted students and political activists from across China to Shenzhen in recent months, some of whom took jobs at the factory in a bid support the workers’ bid to unionize.

But police detained a number of Jasic workers on July 27, and took away some 50 JWSG activists in a raid on their temporary accommodation on Aug. 27. Many were escorted back to their hometowns, where they remain under police restrictions and house arrest.

Yue Xin, a graduate of China’s prestigious Peking University and former #MeToo campaigner remains incommunicado after being detained alongside dozens of others on Aug. 27, the Maoist group said in a recent open letter.

“I accumulated enough evidence of students being subjected to forms of punishment that I thought represented in sum pretty gross violations of academic freedom and thought that something ought to at least be said about it,” Friedman, who set up the program in 2012, told Inside HigherEd.

“The evidence I have seen so far suggests that the university is taking extreme measures, including widespread surveillance, pressuring students’ families and even detaining student[s] in their families’ homes in order to prevent them from speaking out on labor issues,” Friedman wrote in an Oct. 20 email to Renda’s professor Liu Xiangbo that he posted to his Twitter account on Monday.

“On the other hand, I have seen no evidence of student wrongdoing.”

“I understand that the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party has determined that students will not be able to speak up on the Jasic case or engage in activities supportive of workers,” Friedman’s email continued.

“If Renmin … is willing to enforce this policy … we at Cornell see this as a major violation of academic freedom,” he wrote. “In the light of this situation, I am suspending all of [our] student exchange programs.”

Renda philosophy major and JWSG member Yang Shuhan said in a video statement posted to YouTube on Sept. 1 that she was mobbed, robbed and threatened by unidentified persons before trying to board a train to resume her studies in Beijing, and later asked to take a year’s leave of absence.

Another undergraduate student, Zhang Zihan, was criticized by the teacher in front of all the students, and told to delete any content on the social media platform WeChat about the Jasic campaign.

Zhang said in a personal statement on Github on Aug. 30 that Renda had “kidnapped his mother” to put pressure on him to stop his involvement with the JWSG’s activism in Shenzhen.

Left-wing principles

More than 40 years after his death at the age of 82, late supreme leader Mao Zedong still presents a political dilemma to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, political commentator Wu Zuolai told RFA on Saturday.

“They don’t care about left or right-wing,” Wu said. “They only care about whether these people … are going to make trouble.”

“The Communist Party used left-wing principles to incite workers and peasants to overthrow the previous regime, and they have now achieved that aim,” he said. “After it got into power, it abolished those things. Now, anyone trying to set up a real union or a real association representing farmers, will be in big trouble with the Communist Party.”

While revering Mao as the leader who founded the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949, the party has also torn down locally funded statues of Mao in recent years, reflecting official concerns over the potential use of the Great Helmsman’s image as a focus for millions of poor and dispossessed people in China.

Government censors have shut down a number of Maoist websites in recent years, including, most recently, the Red Flag Network.

An anonymous source told RFA on Saturday that the website’s editor Wu Lijie had been detained after he made a trip to visit the Jasic campaign in Shenzhen.

Chen Hongtao, editor-in-chief of the Red Reference website said in August that its offices in Beijing’s Fangshan district had been raided at around the same time as the JWSG members were being detained in Shenzhen.

Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lau Siu-fung for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Rao Yiming for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.