In May of this year, the University of Chicago Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) called for Hong Kong activist Nathan Law to be prevented from participating in an event to be held by the Harris School of Public Policy. Law, a student leader in the 2014 Umbrella Movement who was invited to be a fellow at UChicago, is currently in self-exile under political asylum in London. After Law accused the CSSA of being controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CSSA responded by repeatedly claiming that it is a non-political group with no official affiliation with the CCP, stating, “Mr. Law is a political activist with vast resources and a clear political agenda. We are a student organization…that holds cultural galas and…mooncake tastings.” And in an open letter to the University’s president and provost and the deans of the Harris School, the CSSA executive board insisted: “We are not under, guided by, or report[ing] to any state agent.”
But documents from the U.S. State Department raise strong doubts about these claims. According to a 2020 report, CSSAs were created by the CCP in the 1970s “to monitor Chinese students and mobilize them against views that dissent from the CCP’s stance.” In the same report, it is written that “CSSAs are collectively overseen by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.” This suggests that it is not merely a coincidence that the UChicago CSSA is named as such and that it is currently led by the CCP. It was also disclosed in 2018 by the US-China Commission that “CSSAs ‘frequently attempt to conceal’ their ties to the CCP” and regularly receive funding and instruction from the People’s Republic of China, “such as directing members to disrupt lectures or events that question CCP ideology or views.”
I reached out to the UChicago CSSA for comment on the information found in these documents. Not only did the organization deny any connection to the CCP, but it also denied the fact that it had tried to prevent Nathan Law from coming to UChicago, writing, “We did not try to block or disrupt the event but to change it so that opposing views could be fairly and equally presented.” This claim could not be further from the truth. On May 18, in the first letter sent to the Harris School, the CSSA board wrote, “The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) strongly opposes the invitation of [Nathan Law] and expresses its grave concern regarding the inappropriateness of said actions by the Harris School.” The CSSA eventually walked back this stance by requesting that opposing views be integrated into speaking events Law would participate in, perhaps seeking compromise after realizing that the University would not allow any blatant acts of censorship to occur.
Thus, given the history of the CSSA in general and the recent actions of the UChicago CSSA regarding Law, it is reasonable to suspect, despite persistent claims to the contrary, that they are directed by the CCP to stifle the free speech of anyone who dissents from party ideology.
In its 1967 “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action,” the Kalven Committee writes that “instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.” There currently exists no definitive proof that the UChicago CSSA is controlled by the CCP. But if it were to come to light that this connection exists, the presence of the CSSA would constitute an existential threat to free inquiry on campus. Therefore, given the values and responsibilities expressed in the Kalven Report, the University has an obligation to investigate the CSSA formally and thoroughly to determine whether it has official ties to the CCP.
I sincerely hope that this call for the investigation of the CSSA is not taken, as its members may suggest, as an ignorant attempt to censor Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students. In the response I received from the CSSA board when I reached out for comment, the organization wrote, “We are greatly saddened that somehow we’ve become a target, and that some people are trying to intentionally politicize us.” I sympathize with those affected by the devastating effects of AAPI hate in America, which has made life incredibly difficult for a vast number of Asian Americans. But it is misleading to suggest that the CSSA is being intentionally politicized by others, as its board made a definitively political statement by publicly calling for the censorship of Law. Moreover, I am not intentionally targeting the CSSA for these political views. I am a strong believer, in line with the official stance of the University, that all students should be allowed to organize and express their beliefs. But because there is a substantial probability that the CSSA is controlled by the CCP, its presence may in fact present a great obstacle to free speech. Reporting has shown that Chinese international students are at the greatest risk of censorship, as some CSSAs have been shown to monitor these students closely, leaving some “in fear that their families back home will be interrogated if they openly discuss topics deemed controversial or sensitive by the CCP.” By further investigating the matter, we can mitigate potentially immense threats to the free speech and safety of our students. And if the UChicago CSSA truly is unrelated to the CCP, this investigation could only serve to vindicate them, proving that Law’s accusations are baseless and clearing all suspicions. This necessary investigation is in the best interest of the entire community.
There is precedent for such an investigation to occur: In 2014, University administrators investigated and ultimately terminated an agreement to host the Confucius Institute, a program that, according to the State Department, “advances Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign.” Action was taken as a result of pressure from news coverage and a petition signed by more than 100 faculty members. Following the lead of this inspiring course of events, I call on the faculty and students of UChicago to sign this petition urging the Center for Leadership and Involvement to investigate the UChicago CSSA.
I trust in the University and urge it to act swiftly with eyes turned to the values we rely upon every day: accountability, safety, and truth.
Clark Kovacs is a second-year in the College.