by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Colegota/WikiCommons/CC
TWO RECENT INCIDENTS highlight continued discrimination towards Tibetans and Uighurs from Chinese. The first incident involves a Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan woman facing harassment from Chinese students after being elected as president of a student union at the University of Toronto. The second involves the reported death of a prominent Uighur musician, Abdurehim Heyit, and an online campaign began to call attention to Uighur disappearances after a video was released purporting to show Heyit alive.
Chemi Lhamo, a woman of Tibetan descent born in India who currently holds Canadian citizenship, was recently elected as president of one of the three student unions of the University of Toronto. However, not long after being elected, Lhamo began to see calls from her removal from Chinese students, with some pointing to Lhamo’s history of pro-Tibetan activism as part of groups such as Students for a Free Tibet.
Apart from petitions circulated on WeChat and Change.Org, Lhamo has also seen threats and attacks on her Instagram account, including individuals threatening to rape and kill her. The Change.Org petition claims that Lhamo is “irrational” because of her advocacy of Tibetan independence, was linked to “outside groups” and the WeChat petitions calls on Chinese students to take action to ensure Lhamo does not become student president, claiming that the University of Toronto otherwise should not benefit from the tuition of its Chinese students. There are over 12,000 Chinese students at the University of Toronto, which has a total enrollment of 91,000.
While Lhamo has stated that she believes the Chinese consulate is involved in coordinating harassment efforts against her and intelligence experts believe this to be very possible, this has been denied by the Chinese consulate. At the same time, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars in the USA, an independent organization of Chinese students, has hit back at Lhamo’s harassment, directly accusing the Chinese consulate of orchestrating the harassment and criticizing such actions.
Concerns about Chinese influence on college campuses is nothing new. Concerns have been longstanding that China’s Confucius Institutes are being used as a means of distributing Chinese state propaganda on college campuses globally. To this extent, it is sometimes unclear whether campus-based student groups are being directly controlled by the Chinese government, and where to draw the line between free speech, a political activity organized by a foreign government, and harassment. Complicating matters, it is the case sometimes that Chinese students’ actions are driven by fear of facing repercussions from their home government if they do not comply with harassment efforts.
And it would be far from just Tibetans that are targeted. The plight of up to one million Uighurs in Xinjiang detained because of their religious beliefs has seen increased international attention in the last year. While many Muslim countries have remained silent on the issue, likely out of a desire to maintain political ties with China, or even justified Chinese actions, though not exactly a country friendly to human rights itself, Turkey would criticize China for its detention of Uighurs in a strong break of precedent.
Video purporting to show Abdurehim Heyit alive. Film credit: The Guardian
It may be that the reported death of renowned dutar player, folk singer, and poet Abdurehim Heyit was what provoked a response from Turkey. Heyit was internationally famous and it was the Turkish government which first claimed that Heyit had died, stating that he had been tortured before being killed. Heyit was reportedly arrested in March 2017 for performing a song that contained a reference to “martyrs of war,” something that Chinese authorities interpreted as an incendiary statement.
After reports of Heyit’s demise, video purporting to show Heyit alive emerged, with Heyit stating the date and claiming that he was alive and well. Some believe that this video was something of a forced confession extracted from Heyit, or that this video otherwise could have been doctored footage.
Either way, however, anger from Uighurs internationally about the disappearance of family members has led to an online campaign called #MeTooUighur, with Uighurs with family members who have disappeared taking pictures of themselves to post along with their stories online. But as with Tibetans, it is possible that actions Uighurs take to raise attention to their plight will face protest from Chinese overseas, as occurred with a talk held in McMaster University with Rukiye Turdush, a survivor of the mass imprisonment. Efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Uighurs and Tibetans continue to face challenges, then.