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Apology for anti-Asian bigotry statement at Carnegie Mellon highlights difficulty of discussing China on campus

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Troubled by the “hate targeted toward those of Asian descent,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Assembly Executive Committee released a statement to their fellow graduate students on March 8 offering solidarity to members of the campus’ Asian community and a list of resources to support them. 

But two weeks later, in consultation with CMU’s administration, the GSA would issue an apology for that email, in an incident offering a window into the difficulties of discussing China on campus.

The first statement — issued over a week before the tragic shootings in Atlanta that would end the lives of eight people, including six of Asian descent — denounced “the spike of hate crimes being perpetrated against our Asian community” and declared that “COVID-19 has brought with it an alarming rise in hate crimes and harassment across the country.”

The statement also noted that “[v]arious events—often traumatic—are happening in different Asian countries” that could “add to the stress our peers are feeling during this time.” The events listed included protests in India, escalations against Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and internment camps and forced labor in Xinjiang.

By the next day, members of the committee would begin to receive emails and social media messages from campus and elsewhere decrying their decision to mention “stress” associated with China’s human rights violations — and demanding apologies and resignations. Some of the complaints challenged the legitimacy of news sources’ reporting on the internment camps and democracy movement and argued that their inclusion in the statement implied that the GSA believed bigotry against Asian communities in the United States to be a justified reaction to actions committed by the Chinese government. The messages continued for days. 

Dacen Waters, a recent Ph.D. graduate of CMU and last year’s president of the GSA Executive Committee, says he was aware of and troubled by the chain of events that followed the GSA’s statement. Waters said the statement began circulating on WeChat shortly after it was sent, resulting in the GSA receiving “several messages, some of which were cookie-cutter, copy-pasted.”

Overnight on March 20, someone — presumably a student or a group of students — painted CMU’s Fence (which is generally open to student artwork) with these messages: GSA MUST APOLOGIZE, RISE UP AGAINST RACISM, GSA RACIST RESIGN. 

The next day, a group calling itself The Asian Student Stop-Asian-Hate Petition Organizing Committee created a petition on demanding a number of actions by the GSA. The petition called on the GSA to:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that has been caused by this inappropriate and insensitive language which permits the inference that the violent and racist acts against Asians in the United States are justified because of unrelated alleged acts and circumstances occurring in Asia.
  2. Retract this objectionable language and apologize for its inclusion and the hurt that it has caused members of the Carnegie Mellon community.
  3. Revisit the process in place to prevent such a statement from being published and disseminated with insufficient review to avert the aforementioned harm that has occurred and undermined efforts to achieve equity, diversity and inclusion.
  4. Expand outreach to all graduate students to encourage more diverse and inclusive participation that will ensure better representation of international voices in Executive Committee decision making and communications.

Within days, the petition earned thousands of signatures, and dozens of comments demanding apologies and resignations, calling the statement false, and mentioning pulled donations. (Errors in original.):

CMU GSA is an organization that serves the student. In no way shape or form should it get involved in spreading political motivated propaganda, not to mention using it to downplay the current rising hate Asian Americans are experiencing. The original email greatly hurts the feeling of our Asian students on the campus, also our Asian alumni.

those “ traumatic events” didn’t add stress to us because as people born and rainsed there we know those events are not true. What tramatize us is the GSA’s false accusation without fact check, involving in politics from nowhere and not willing to listen to feedbacks. Another perfect case showing how arrogance they are when dealing with Asian cases, that’s why we need unite more than ever. We need more Asians in GSA !

I’m signing these because as a CMU alumni, I am insulted by these unground accusation against China and India. Without knowing what’s really happening there and feed by the biased/fake news, the GSA committie blurred the recent movement against asian hate and moreoever humiliate the asian community. It’s a great dispointment that they will even publish these kind of “announcement”.

I’m shocked how ignorant the GSA is of the feelings of Asian students and justifies hatred towards Asians. I don’t feel valued by CMU as an Asian alumni and I’ll stop donating to it and instead use my money to fight against systematic racism at CMU GSA.

GSA must apologize. People responsible for relative remarks must resign.

The GSA’s original statement was also posted to subreddits including r/Sino, a “subreddit for news, information, and discussion on anything China and Chinese related,” where the posting account described it as “carnegie mellon university attempts to justify rise in anti-Asian hate crimes with sinophobic us state department talking points on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”

Waters’ understanding is that the GSA was quickly overwhelmed by the feedback it received and looked to CMU’s administration for advice on how to respond, which Waters notes “is not abnormal” for the GSA. But, more unusually, administrators helped draft a response and encouraged the GSA to apologize and walk back the statement. 

On March 22, after two weeks of emails, petitions, messages, and fence painting, the GSA decided to issue an apology and move the original statement underneath it. The executive committee wrote:

About two weeks ago, we sent out a message offering our solidarity with and support for CMU’s Asian and Asian American communities. Since then, we have received candid feedback from some of our current community members and alumni. We acknowledge and regret that some of the topics we chose to address at that moment distracted from our core message, and we apologize for causing pain in the communities we were trying to support. We have removed the message from our website, and will consider the feedback we were offered as we promote future programming and communications designed to support our diverse CMU community.

Please know that we deeply care for all of our graduate students. We fight hard every day to make the graduate student experience better for everyone, and remain steadfast in our support of all of our graduate students. We state again: we stand against hate, white supremacy and racism. We stand with and support the Asian community. We must come together to combat hatred and racism in all its forms, and it starts with each and every one of us.

“I am grateful that CMU’s admin quickly responded and offered assistance to the GSA Executive Committee. I’m sure if I were there I would have been seeking help as well,” Waters said. “However, I’m disappointed that the admin’s advice wasn’t: ‘You did nothing wrong, continue to stand up for what you believe is right. You have the right to say what you did and we have your back.’ I think they missed an opportunity to address ongoing issues about how a fundamentally international institution like CMU operates while living up to the values that they claim to have.”

Waters says he recognized the pressure the GSA faced and ultimately agreed that a second statement may have been warranted, but believed the decision to create distance from the first statement was “frustrating” and much of the criticism against it was unfair. 

It’s “100% the case” that criticism of China was the main cause for the negative reaction, Waters said. “There’s nothing racist in that statement; just bringing attention to the Uyghur genocide or Hong Kong protests is not racist. GSA is a political organization. We criticize the U.S. government, we criticize CMU. We’re not going to hold back here.”

Waters pointed out one additional issue he saw with the reaction to the first statement: the target of the complaints. 

“Those emails are written as a team effort from the GSA Executive Committee, but there’s a point person who sends out the email,” he said. “The first email came from VP of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Satvika Neti. The blowback to this email, if they directly replied to that email, was to an Asian-American woman.” 

This incident at CMU offers insight into the complexities of even discussing, let alone condemning, China’s actions on campuses today. (Notably, the GSA’s March 8 statement simply asserted that these issues could create additional “stress” for students from Asian countries, but did not engage in direct criticism of them.)

And all of these immediate concerns occur against the backdrop of the oppressive national security law China thrust upon Hong Kong last year, which authorities claim applies around the world — including U.S. campuses.

Students publicly involved in these conversations, which would likely face varying degrees of state censorship if they occurred within China, run the risk of being in the spotlight of both on-campus disputes and thousands of off-campus internet commentators. Administrators, uneasy about potential consequences for the university itself, may find themselves scrambling to respond to messages demanding action or threatening to pull donations. And all of these immediate concerns occur against the backdrop of the oppressive national security law China thrust upon Hong Kong last year, which authorities claim applies around the world — including U.S. campuses. 

Passionate disagreements over what can and should be said about China on campuses are nothing new. In 2017, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, San Diego asked administrators to retract their speaking invitation to the Dalai Lama and involved the Chinese consulate of Los Angeles. In 2019, at the University of Rochester, students’ artwork supportive of Tibet and Hong Kong were covered up by students “mobilized by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association” during months-long back and forth disagreements in the university’s painted tunnels. Around the same time, the campus Chinese Students’ Association contacted administrators to voice opposition to another student group’s event about Tibet. That same year, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Canada’s McMaster University emailed administrators about a campus event with a Uyghur activist, claiming the student groups hosting the event violated, among others, policies against “hate speech” and “false defamation of an individual.” 

These disputes flare up often and show no signs of stopping. And apologizing for critical comments of China in response to complaints may only create more problems. At CMU, after the apology was issued, a Uyghur student wrote to the GSA:

I’m sure that a part of your initial intention to include the Uyghur community was to bring attention to the wide ranging atrocities committed against Asians around the world. 

My opinion is that your decision to include these topics did not distract from the core message but rather strengthened it, because you showed that the ongoing situation in the U.S. is inexorably connected with uncomfortable global affairs that we must not look away from.

So, it’s incredibly regrettable that you decided to remove your initial inclusive statement.

For students or student governments trying to speak out about China, it may seem that they can’t win — either by saying what they believe, or by staying silent. And with increasing tensions between the United States and China, escalations in human rights abuses in China, and a spotlight on the controversial upcoming Olympic games in Beijing, the opportunities for missteps, anger, and backlashes are only going to multiply. Honest, open conversations — at a time when they’re desperately needed and in academic spaces designed for such difficult discussions — seem increasingly out of reach. 

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