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Cornell University, Chinese Students, and the Uyghur Genocide: It’s the Money, Stupid

They tried to silence their Uyghur classmate Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, whose story was told in Bitter Winter. Incredibly, the university tried to appease them.

by Kok Bayraq


Rizwangul protesting for her detaining brother. From Twitter.

If the truth cannot be defended at a university, where can it be defended? Without defense of the truth, how do we learn about its existence? These questions emerged after Cornell University’s reaction to a mass walkout by Chinese students. Cornell University leaders stated, “… we must also respect that walkouts are a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval.”

The legitimacy of an action must first be determined by its nature, followed by its form. An ignominious act, no matter the form, cannot be legitimate. The Chinese students who left the meeting at Cornell did so because a Uyghur Fulbright student from New Zealand, Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, mentioned the Uyghur genocide. Rizwangul’s brother, Mewlan, “disappeared” in 2017. Finally, Rizwangul managed to find out that he had been sentenced to nine years for “separatism.” The story was first publicized by Bitter Winter in 2020.

Rizwangul just spoke of her brother’s imprisonment and asked the lecturer about the difference between the US government’s firm response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its muted reaction to the incarceration of more than three million Uyghurs in China.

In a public statement, Cornell’s Chinese students defended the Chinese Communist Party by denying the ongoing Uyghur genocide despite mounting facts in the international media, including independent Uyghur Tribunals’ verdicts, leaked official Chinese government documents, and first-person stories from camp survivors. Ignoring genocide and acting to cover up a human tragedy is not legitimate.

Regarding the form of the protest, with more than forty Chinese students participating, they aimed to show off their power in numbers by walking out together. Whom did they intend to intimidate? A fellow student, not a politician. A victim whose brother was jailed for political reasons only; he had committed no crime. A student who was vulnerable at that moment, as she stood alone against tyranny. How could your conscience allow you to react so harshly to someone who was voicing her family tragedy?

The power they demonstrated via the walkout did not harm Rizwangul physically, but the spiritual and emotional toll was high. Rizwangul stated, “When they walked out, the signal they gave me was that your personal suffering is not welcome to be shared in this space. They [were] giving me this signal that you have to be silent. This stress and worry have accumulated for too long.” She was seeing their large numbers and feeling threatened that they would find a way to silence her. Given her vulnerability and the circumstances, this mass walkout cannot be considered an appropriate expression of protest. It was unethical, inhumane, and uncivilized.

The Chinese students not only threatened the Uyghur classmate with their mass walkout but also extended their threat to Cornell’s leaders. In a joint statement signed by 88 Chinese students they requested a formal response from the school management: “… so that we know we made the right decision choosing CIPA (Cornell Institute for Public Affairs) and Cornell.” Prior to that statement, the university made no comments about Rizwangul’s question and position.

What might these Chinese students expect? Do they want Cornell to punish Rizwangul for mentioning the Uyghur genocide by expelling her? Do they want an apology from the university for enrolling Rizwangul or allowing her to attend the seminar? What is clear is that these Chinese students consider Rizwangul to be a troubled student from a small country (New Zealand) who originated from an unknown people, the Uyghurs. They are insinuating that the university is risking the loss of many high-paying Chinese students, and their statements cannot be interpreted otherwise.

Cornell University received the message and tried to respond “appropriately” to the matter. In their statements, Cornell leaders focused more on entertaining the Chinese students’ complaints than comforting a vulnerable Uyghur student: “Concerns have also been raised about the safety of individual students. Others have expressed worry that Chinese students are not welcome at Cornell. All are welcome and should feel safe at Cornell.”

Cornell’s leadership under the pretext of soothing concerns about supposed anti-Asian sentiments in fact hid real issues raised about China’s treatment of Uyghurs. “They remind us how harmful it is when conversation devolves into derogatory anti-Asian expression.”

This answer rightly angered Rizwangul, who replied, “… anti-Asian? What are you talking about? I’m Asian too. There is very little understanding of what I’m going through. I [feel] alone.”

At the beginning of the incident, a Cornell staff member said to the lecturer, “As you know, half of the Chinese students have left.” Clearly, the lecturer had nothing to do with this exit, but the staff member was either urging the lecturer to say “something nice” to entice the Chinese students to return or warning her to be careful when answering Rizwangul’s question.

These actions show that Cornell’s leaders and staff are obviously only concerned about losing high-paying students, most of whom may be from China. They are less concerned about giving the impression that there is a lack of free speech at their university or that they support dictators.

We do not know what discussions are occurring between the Chinese students and Cornell’s leaders in private, but publicly, we are seeing a hyper-cautious and frightened university response.

Actually, the message from Cornell to the Chinese students is that the university will continue to welcome students from non-democratic countries who will publicly defend their regimes in the classroom and will try to silence the dissidents and the oppressed.

Rizwangul said that staff had been in touch with her privately since the walkout, but she was not satisfied with the university’s response and wanted a public apology.

“I do worry about my safety, she said. This incident, a group of Chinese students walking out as a group, what does it mean? It’s huge. I feel like there’s now 88 students against me …”

Her demand from the university to express its position on the Uyghur genocide and to issue an apology for the imbalance in addressing the incident has not been answered. The university is trying to play on both sides, but this approach could further damage its reputation.

Cornell’s response to the Chinese students’ improper reactions and demands is no different than billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya flattering China by saying “Who cares about the Uyghurs?” to save his interests in the Chinese market. This stance is also reminiscent of U.S. actor John Cena’s apology for describing Taiwan as a country, to maintain his popularity with his Chinese audience. However, Cornell University’s worship of money sends an even worse signal. It shows that a prestigious institution in a country that touts freedom of speech and justice has surrendered to a country that is committing genocide.

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