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OPINION: What caused the mass walkout at Cornell University during Q&A about Uyghur genocide?


By Kok Bayraq

Apr, 03 2022

Image by mcfisher / Pixabay

One can ask questions about the mass walkout by the Chinese students at Cornell University on March 10 during a question-and-answer session of a seminar.

Why did Chinese students show zero tolerance for one question regarding the Uyghur cause?

“We left today's colloquium because we felt that the atmosphere in that room was extremely hostile towards us,” they said in an email sent to faculty.

In fact, at the moment of the walkout, the so-called “hostile atmosphere” was nonexistent: Fullbright scholar Rizwangul Nurmuhammad spoke of her brother's imprisonment. She 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.

As the lecturer, Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin began to answer, the Chinese students started exiting the meeting. It is natural for university halls to hold discussions on a wide range of topics, from the most pressing global issues to the personal tragedy of an individual.

Why were the Chinese students so sensitive to this still unanswered question? The answer is simple: They cannot deny the existence of the Uyghur genocide. They are well aware of the tragic lives of the more than 3 million Uyghurs languishing in 380 camps in East Turkestan (Xinjiang to China).

These students understand the meaning of the words: “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins,” which the internal Chinese government documents revealed about the treatment of Uyghurs. They also know the consequences of Xi Jinping’s order to “show absolutely no mercy in the struggle against separatism,” also revealed in the leaked documents.

Why would they not try to refute Rizwangul’s “allegations” of the Uyghur genocide with facts? Because, Rizwangul presented a fact, not a theory. Her brother’s punishment, including a jail term, had already been acknowledged by the Chinese officials when they responded to a request by the UN Working Group Against Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

Rizwangul Nurmuhammad with images of her imprisoned brother, Mewlan.

They had lost their argument: Eight western parliaments, including the UK, France, USA; three of the five members of the Security Council of the UN have already had declared that China’s violence against the Uyghurs is genocide. Only the poorer dictatorships “believed” China’s genocide denial narrative.

Why would the students not demonstrate their numerical superiority in the dispute rather than walk out of the meeting? At the very least, why do they not remain silent? Because they were offended. Their complaint was made public in a joint statement signed by 88 Chinese students the following day: “At that moment, we were not sitting in a classroom; we

were crucified in a courtroom for crimes that we did not commit.”

In truth, Rizwangul’s remarks did not condemn Chinese students or the Chinese people but targeted the Chinese government—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). An independent British court, the Uyghur Tribunal, holds the Chinese government (CCP) accountable for the Uyghur genocide, not the Chinese people.

As Congresswoman Slotkin said earlier in the seminar: “I’m thrilled there are so many Chinese students at Cornell; my beef tends to be with the Chinese government. I have no qualms and no issues with the Chinese people.” Even Uyghur activists in exile differentiate between the CCP and the Chinese people. Why would these students shout … 'we were crucified…' after the seminar?"

One international student told Axios: “I have been in classes where my country is mentioned as an example of corruption and dysfunction, yet I don’t take offense to reality. It might even be accurate. The students that complained, could be the children of officials who are executing the

dictatorial Chinese regime, or businessmen who are enjoying the existing political system. Some may have even taken part in the genocide. No matter who they are, the sentiments of their statements acknowledge China’s responsibility for the Uyghur genocide.

With the tone of the rhetoric and words chosen in their statement, they identify themselves as representatives of a regime that committed genocide and not as students or scholars. If we think they made a mistake in their choice of words because they are part of the Chinese people. Organizations dealing with the Uyghur genocide need to reassess the role of the Chinese people in it.

The real atmosphere which made the Chinese students uncomfortable is internal: The sense of guilt of being members or supporters of a genocidal government. Rizwangul’s words were not what bothered them. Rather it was the crime of China — the genocide committed against the Uyghurs—and the revelation of it that the students did not want to face.

The swift departure of more than forty students from the conference was nothing more than an acknowledgment of the genocide perpetrated by their government.

Rizwangul meant to state that the international community must give the same attention to all people being destroyed, whether there is bloodshed or not. All humanitarian tragedies should be acknowledged. This is an important topic in international relations. The Chinese students, driven

by their sense of guilt turned this scholarly discussion into a political struggle.

In this struggle, the winner was Rizwangul Nurmuhammad, despite being threatened and left to stand on her own. The losers were the Chinese students because they fully exposed their guilt by overreacting to a sincere statement.

Rizwangul cemented her victory by stating: “I have gone through a lot of difficulties living [with] the impact of this genocide [and] the impact of losing my family members for years now.” She continued, “So, I will not allow this incident to knock me down. I will carry on [with] my

studies. That’s why I'm still here.” “I mean if I do not speak up for my family, who is going to?” The brave position of Rizwangul at Cornell University, when faced with 88 Chinese students defending the Uyghur genocide, mirrors the braveness of Ukraine President Zelenskyi as he faces a war against Russian troops. They are both fighting for their people.

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