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Silence campaigns

Recent incidents show how Communist officials work to squelch free speech even beyond Chinese borders

Silence campaigns

A paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Swedish embassy in Beijing on Feb. 14. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party is not only silencing voices domestically, by censoring online comments and detaining Chinese Twitter users, but it’s also trying to silence critics overseas. Most recently, we’ve seen attempts to silence dissent in Canada and Sweden.

At Canada’s McMaster University, Chinese students found out that Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush planned to give a talk on campus earlier this month about the detention of Uighurs in Chinese re-education camps. They contacted the Chinese Embassy to ask what they should do, according to The Washington Post. The embassy officials told them to see if any university officials attended the event, find out whether any Chinese nationals organized it, and send them photos and videos of the talk. 

At the event on Feb. 11, a Chinese student filmed Turdush before shouting at her and storming out. A few days later, a bulletin signed by five Chinese student groups complained that the school hosted a “separatist” speaker critical of the Chinese government and demanded the university uphold its “duty of supervision.” Turdush is now concerned about the safety of her son, who attends McMaster. One Chinese student wrote in a WeChat group chat, “We should figure out who her son is.”

“The Chinese consulate, using these students, infiltrated [the] academic field in Canada,” Turdush told Radio Free Asia. “This is a war between atrocity and liberal democracy.”

Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people signed a petition protesting the election of Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, as student president. Chinese students berated her activism promoting Tibetan independence and left hostile messages on her social media accounts. Lhamo said she wouldn’t step down and hoped “this incident will make more people aware of freedom and democracy.”

China’s nationalistic Global Times newspaper applauded the “patriotic action of Chinese students” at both universities.

Over in Sweden, Angela Gui, the daughter of an imprisoned Chinese bookseller, faced a different type of silencing. The Chinese government kidnapped Gui’s father, bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai, in Thailand more than three years ago for selling politically sensitive books about top Chinese leaders. He remains in Chinese custody today.

Angela Gui wrote in a recent blog post that in January the Swedish ambassador to China, Anna Lindstedt, contacted her about a “new approach” to her father’s case. She invited Gui to Stockholm to meet with two businessmen she believed could help. For two days, Gui was told to stay in a members-only lounge in a hotel where “there was a lot of wine, a lot of people, and a lot of increasingly strange questions,” she wrote. The “businessmen” asked many personal questions without mentioning how they could help her father. But because Lindstedt was present, Gui assumed the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had initiated the meeting.

The businessmen said they were negotiating her father’s case and that the bookseller might be released after a trial and short prison sentence. In exchange, Angela Gui needed to agree to stay quiet and stop speaking to the media about the case. According to Gui’s account, Lindstedt agreed to the plan and explained that “if activism and media coverage was to continue, China might ‘punish Sweden.’” 

After returning to Britain, where she is studying for a Ph.D., Gui called officials at the Swedish Foreign Ministry and found they did not know this meeting took place or that the ambassador was even in the country. Once she told the businessmen she was declining their plan, they reneged on their promise to reimburse the cost of her trip.

After Gui went public about the incident, the Swedish authorities recalled Lindstedt to Stockholm and placed her under investigation. “We take these reports and other information about contexts where freedom of expression is not fully respected very seriously,” Rasmus Eljanskog, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Washington Post. “The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs always—and in all contexts—stands up for the fundamental right to freely express oneself, without the threats or reprisals.”

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Virtual tiger mom?

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