Chemi Lhamo had barely claimed victory last week as student-union president at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus when it began: first a petition demanding she be removed from the post, then a torrent of online abuse.
The calls came from what appeared to be Chinese students, insisting her long-standing advocacy for Tibetan independence was “irrational” and made her ineligible to represent the student body.
Some simply wished for her to die or be raped.
“People like u deserve a gunshot. Hope you go to hell immediately,” said a poster named caesssar_hsu on Instagram.
“Why we elect a person who don’t love her own country,” asked Ziyu Wang, one of almost 11,000 petition signers, though Lhamo is Canadian.
Meanwhile, in nearby Hamilton, a coalition of Chinese students’ groups protested a talk Monday at McMaster University about well-documented human-rights abuses against China’s Uyghur minority.
The presentation promoted “hatred” against China, the groups argued in a statement, adding that they have asked the university to ensure the “dignity of Chinese students is not infringed.”
The two episodes come amid increasing concern about Beijing’s attempts to extend influence into countries like Canada, helped by some of the thousands of Chinese citizens who attend colleges and universities here.
President Xi Jinping has in recent years greatly expanded the size and power of the Communist Party branch at the forefront of China’s soft-power efforts. Experts say both the Confucius Institutes based at many Canadian post-secondary institutions and leaders of the Chinese scholars and students associations at most of the schools, report to government officials.
Though there is no direct evidence of it, Lhamo said she believes the petition and the comments on her Instagram page are at least partly the work of Chinese diplomats.
“I was a little surprised, but seconds after reading some of the comments I realized this was probably a tactic by the Chinese government,” she said Thursday. “This looks very orchestrated. We’ve seen enough of this stuff to know it’s not coming out of nowhere.”
She is very deep into a group called Free Tibet. We think she is irrational about this
Petition against Chemi Lhamo
An article about the petition was featured in Global Times, a Chinese English-language tabloid known for its fierce nationalistic stance.
Lhamo, 22, is a Canadian citizen of Tibetan descent who spent the first half of her life with her family in India, and has long espoused the cause of Tibetan independence.
She won the election for president of the Scarborough campus students’ union with 837 votes, the runner-up earning 519. About 12,000 of the university’s entire student enrolment of 91,000 are from China.
In less-than-perfect English, the petition on change.org argued she should not be president because she had promoted her “miserable experience” to gain voter sympathy, and was overly linked to “outside groups.”
“She is very deep into a group called Free Tibet. We think she is irrational about this,” said the petition. “How would international students feel if they have a (student union) leader criticising foreign countries? International students need respects from the university now and the future.”
The comments by petition signers and on Instagram range from blunt critiques of the Tibetan independence movement to obscene sexual insults. The attacks are somewhat countered with messages of support.
Don Campbell, a U of T spokesman, said the institution is in touch with the new student president to make sure she feels safe.
The petition organizers and the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association could not be reached for comment.
Lhamo said she has never hidden her beliefs about Tibet — which are clearly set out on her social media pages and suggested by her long-standing habit of wearing traditional clothing every Wednesday — but said Tibetan issues will not be a focus of her term as president.
The event at McMaster featured a talk by Uyghur “survivor” Rukiye Turdush on what organizers called China’s genocide of the Muslim Turkic minority.
The UN and human-rights groups have, in fact, reported that up to a million Uyghurs have been detained in “re-education” camps in the Xinjiang region, part of what observers have called a massive “police state” around the population.
China has most recently said the camps are designed to combat extremism and teach vocational skills.
A spokesperson for McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, which helped organize the event, said it was described in detail beforehand to university officials, and drew “extremely positive” feedback except for one audience member who “disrupted the talk and left visibly upset.”
An administration spokesman said students first voiced concerns about the presentation on Wednesday, but officials saw nothing amiss.
“McMaster is clear in its commitment to freedom of speech,” said university communications director Gord Arbeau. “We have a wide range of speakers on campus and we know that not everyone will agree on a particular view or opinion. As a university, we believe that even when views are controversial, they should be freely expressed.”
The McMaster Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which appears to have spearheaded the protest along with four other groups, could not be reached for comment.