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Arrest of student in Boston a grim reminder of the danger facing Chinese dissidents on campus
FIRE has warned for years that it’s growing more and more dangerous to criticize the Chinese government, even on American college campuses. This week, that danger became apparent once again in an announcement from the District of Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office about the FBI’s arrest of Berklee College of Music student and People’s Republic of China citizen Xiaolei Wu.
Wu is accused of stalking a fellow Chinese citizen, potentially a student at the college, because the victim publicly posted signs on Berklee’s campus supporting the recent protests in China. The signs read “We Want Freedom” and “We Want Democracy.” Wu “made a series of communications via WeChat, email and Instagram directed towards the victim,” including a threat that if she posted more flyers, he would “chop your bastard hands off.”
Wu also added that he had reported the victim to public security in China and that police would “greet” her family, a clear implication that her relatives would pay the price for her activism, a common fear among Chinese activists abroad. FBI agents reportedly believe Wu succeeded in alerting the Chinese authorities to the victim’s activities. Finally, the Department of Justice alleges that Wu “solicited others to find out where the victim was living and publicly posted the victim’s email address in the hopes that others would abuse the victim online.”
Wu’s case follows a series of arrests this summer by the FBI of individuals connected with a scheme on behalf of the Chinese government to silence dissidents.
The problem of transnational repression increasingly threatens college campuses as well. As I wrote last month, Chinese students at George Washington University, who have spent the past year organizing anonymous protest campaigns against the Chinese Communist Party on their campus, fear experiencing exactly what transpired at Berklee: that their anonymity will be taken from them, and their families at home in China will pay the price.
These students already experienced multiple attempts to unmask them on their campus, including from a man who filmed them posting flyers and a campaign from fellow students to have administrators investigate and punish the dissidents for posting artwork critical of the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
George Washington University recants promise to uncover Chinese government critics after artist’s satirical Olympics posters appear on campus
When the protests against China’s COVID policies began last month, FIRE warned universities that they would likely experience both protests and retaliation against protesters and should be prepared to respond. Isolated incidents did occur at campuses, including arson of a memorial created by Chinese students at UC Berkeley and a violent attack on a protester at Columbia University that left her unconscious and in need of medical assistance.
Wu’s alleged threats and stalking of an activist indicate an escalation of harassment and intimidation against Chinese protesters on American campuses, one that cannot be tolerated by universities or by law enforcement. Universities would be wise to remind students that their right to speak and protest is protected in the United States — and that criminal efforts to abridge that right are not a lawful or acceptable response to protected speech.
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