Students connected to China face risks

New Hong Kong National Security Law allows Chinese government to take action against students learning sensitive information in their online classes

Kyle Morrison, News Editor

During the Tsuen Wan March on August 25th, 2019 protestors and police came to a standoff on part of Yeung Uk Road. (Image by Studio Incendo under license cc by 2.0.)

In late 2019,  Hong Kong’s citizens took to the streets in the name of freedom from Chinese interference in their government. These protests may have dire consequences on Chinese international students taking American classes over Zoom.

On June 30, 2020, China passed the Hong Kong National Security Law, which gives the Chinese government authority to press legal action on any citizen or non citizen who takes part in anti-government speech. If a student is taking classes at Seattle Pacific University and a professor says something critical of the Chinese government, or even historically sensitive, that student can be arrested or required to hand over Zoom recordings for further investigation. (China File)

“This law will be able to arrest the people involved in so-called criminal acts of succession and breaking away from the country,” Associate professor of History and Chinese citizen Dr. Zhigou Ye explained. “For example, if you talk about Tibet or Chinese Uyghurs, that immediately puts you as a criminal.”

Ye wants students to understand their risks. She explained that she no longer records certain lectures and that she warns students with ties to China if a class session will mention certain sensitive topics.

“I basically email my students living in China and let them know we are talking about those topics, and then I’m not going to record my zoom class sessions,” Ye explained. “It’s default that most of the courses that are teaching online on campus record the session and I told them I’m not going to do that to protect their freedom of speech, I give them the opportunity to evaluate your own risk.”

While many members of the SPU community may not know about this policy, Ye wants people to know that it is a clear and present danger for many attending SPU Zoom classes. 

“Because of this pandemic, we [SPU] actually have a lot of international students staying at home… but if they are living in China they are under big risk, because they are taking the class even though they are not participating in discussion, taking the class itself, hearing the opinions and  perspectives that are against the party line that can be used as evidence against you.”

Hong Kong citizens took to the streets in large numbers to protest a controversial extradition bill by China in June of 2019. (Image by Studio Incendo under license cc by 2.0.)

As a Chinese citizen, Ye is not completely safe.

“Not recording my Zoom sessions protects me the most.” Ye explained. “Teaching about China,  It’s constantly having to overcome your fear, you constantly have to self check yourself… but because of that you know the situation better, so you feel obligated to share that with people.”

Many American citizens may dismiss this law, believing that it does not apply to them. However, this law technically applies to anyone who is critical of the Chinese government, and while they can’t do anything to anyone outside the Chinese borders, they may not allow certain people in if they consider them a threat. 

SPU Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Ruth Ediger is unsure if she’ll ever be allowed to visit China for some of the things she’s said in class.

“If I ever wanted to travel to China, which someday I do… If someone dives deep into my courses and sees that I am doing things the communist government doesn’t want, they may stop my visa from going through,” Ediger explained. “In other words, I do geo quizzes in my other class, and I know I’m skating on thin ice when I have students memorize Taiwan.”

SPU Language Professor Dr. Xu Bian, who teaches a UCOR focused on Chinese history, also understands the risks, but is hopeful for the best.

“The facts are available everywhere…I use the facts to help students know more about the party and more about the politics in China,” Bian explained. “I’m not that radical and I’m also not a big name in this field, so if the person is a big name or already catches the government’s attention the government may want to spy on those people, I’m just a small potato.” 

While the scale at which the Chinese government will enforce this new law is unknown, the fact that it contains broad language in an age where classes are almost exclusively online because of the global pandemic puts anyone with any ties to China at risk. The Falcon decided not to reach out to any international students living in China as it was advised that doing so could put students and their families at risk. 

Dr. Ye and other professors informed on this issue believe it is very important that the SPU community is informed on how this can affect members of the student and administrative body. 

“I have to say that Chinese government in the past 40 years, they know America much better than American people know about China, and I really see that it’s a great need for people to know about China,” Dr. Ye explained. “People should know about it (the new law) and this is going to affect everyone.”