Soft power? We don’t need no stinking soft power.
You remember the bandits in Treasure of the Sierra Madre - the bandit horde, pretending to be Federales, descending on Humphrey Bogart and fellow prospectors. “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you no stinking badges.” The famous lines were uttered by Gold Hat, head of the bandits, when Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) asked for their badges. Hong Kong was the soft power model, the badge of Chinese "peaceful rise." Mainland students and Confucius Institutes were supposed to be the badge of Chinese soft power in the world. But no more, as we see in Hong Kong, in Australian and New Zealand universities, and indeed, universities throughout the world.
I kept thinking of that scene as I watched Hong Kongers resist the violence of the banditos, this time in the form of white-shirted thugs from Triad gangs, and the local police. And then, watching mainland Chinese students attack Hong Kong sympathizers at Queenland University in Australia and Auckland University in New Zealand.
Watch the videos from Hong Kong –
In Australia, a Chinese diplomat applauded patriotic behavior from mainland students in disrupting a peaceful protest at University of Queensland. As reported, the attack was coordinated, quite possibly by the local CSSA (Chinese Students and Scholars Association). You can hear the beginning of the Chinese national anthem playing in the background of the Queensland attack. Watch the video at twitter.
The New York Times reports- The Chinese nationalists disrupting pro-Hong Kong democracy rallies at the University of Queensland arrived 300 strong, with a speaker to blast China’s national anthem. They deferred to a leader in a pink shirt. And their tactics included violence.
Threats to Australian students via social media have continued, including death threats. Similar violence took place last week at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Bill Bishop at Sinocism suggests that expulsion might be beneficial to PRC students who can’t abide exercise of free speech - In the case of PRC students (expulsion) could be quite beneficial, as there are pressures from within the PRC student community, and its CCP minders, to be aggressive in the face of any perceived slights, and if you are not then you run the risk of being seen as insufficiently loyal and patriotic.
Western universities have though that mainland Chinese students will see freedom at work, and have their lives transformed. For some that is true. But now, some mainland Chinese are out to transform their hosts. The Confucius Institutes were supposed to be the vanguard of Chinese soft power in the world. Now, they are suspected - in at least some cases, legitimately - of being a conduit for United Front activities.
In 2016, Xi Jinping issued what now seem to be orders to Chinese students abroad to serve their country, and the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a directive calling for a "contact network" connecting "the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad" and ensuring that they will "always follow the Party."
You remember the death threats earlier this year to the Tibetan-Canadian student elected as student union president at the University of Toronto University of Toronto. She now has a safety plan with the university police, letting them know where she is, hour by hour. You remember the uproar at McMaster University in Canada when a Uighur activist was scheduled to speak. Mainland Chinese students sought advice from the Chinese consulate about how to proceed in their protests. You remember the large protests in 2017 at the University of California at San Diego. Mainland students reportedly sought advice from the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles before condemning the university for naming as commencement speaker the Dalai Lama. There are many such stories, including demands from the Chinese government that Uighur students return to China immediately, using their parents as potential hostages.
The “peaceful rise” touted by Deng Xiaoping, and the soft power projection from the Confucius Institutes worldwide is no more. In Tibet, in Xinjiang, on the mainland in prisons where human rights lawyers and activists rot, in Canada, now in Hong Kong, and Australia, and New Zealand, the gloves have come off on soft power. In Hong Kong, the protests have not yet turned deadly. But Christy Leung, Hong Kong student at Queensland, made the point -
“People in Hong Kong are risking their lives. The threats we faced last week are nothing compared to them. We have to stand up. With them.”
For Hong Kongers, it is more than a movie. They are risking their lives. They all know about June 4, even if mainland students do not.
For western students, and teachers, and universities generally, lives are not likely at risk. But the very concept of the university - let us say, seeking truth from facts, and speaking truth to power- is at risk. The soft power glove is revealing the clenched fist beneath.