Uyghur activist who sparked Chinese-student protest at McMaster worried about message targeting her son

Protestors outside the Alberta legislature call for an end to alleged Chinese oppression of Uyghur people.	DAVID BLOOM/POSTMEDIA/FILE

TOM BLACKWELL
Updated: February 16, 2019

It was shocking enough, says Rukiye Turdush, that her talk on Uyghur human rights in China set off an indignant protest by Chinese students at an Ontario university.

But now she’s worried that her son could be targeted by some of those students, after one of them messaged colleagues that they should look into the young man.

Turdush had mentioned that her son was a student at Hamilton’s McMaster University, where she was giving the presentation. That apparently prompted the message on WeChat by a Chinese student videotaping her seminar.

“I don’t know what they are planning, it’s quite disturbing,” the Canadian citizen of Uyghur background said in an interview Friday. “I don’t want anything to happen … I’m really worrying about my son’s safety.”

Meanwhile, she said she’s also convinced Chinese diplomats were behind the students’ written critique of her presentation, whose wording she says mimicked the official Beijing line.

The Canadian government should investigate the activities of those officials on campuses here, Turdush said.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association that seemed to spearhead the protest could not be reached for comment.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT Windsor Star

The Chinese embassy said late Friday evening that it had nothing to do with the actions of the students, but praised them and decried what it called groundless accusations that stir up anti-China sentiment.

“We strongly support the just and patriotic actions of Chinese students,” said a statement emailed by the mission. “Safeguarding sovereignty and opposing separatism are the common position of the international community and they are also the position that the Canadian government upholds,” the statement said.

“Canada is a multicultural country advocating freedom of speech. Since the ‘Tibetan independence’ and Xinjiang separatists forces are allowed to have freedom of speech, people who oppose them should also be entitled to enjoy freedom of speech.”

Concern is mounting, nevertheless, about China’s attempts to influence opinion in foreign countries such as Canada, an effort that experts say is spearheaded by a branch of the Communist Party — the United Front Work Department — that was greatly expanded in recent years.

Leaders of the Confucius Institutes located at many Canadian colleges and universities and the students and scholars associations at most of them are believed to report directly to Chinese officials. About 140,000 Chinese citizens study at post-secondary schools here.

In a similar episode, Chinese students responded online with abusive comments when Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan-Canadian woman, was elected last week as president of the student union at a campus of the University of Toronto. A petition signed by more than 10,000 called for her ouster. Lhamo, an advocate of Tibetan independence, also said she believed the consulate was behind the backlash.

But one of the students involved in the McMaster controversy told the Washington Post that they were not incited by their government.

“We study-abroad students … just know our personal interest and our sense of belonging to our nation,” he was quoted as saying. “If other people hurt us, smear us, we have to counterattack.”

Two Muslim student groups at McMaster had invited Turdush, a 48-year-old social worker who emigrated from China in 1998, to speak on oppression of the Uyghur minority.

In the wake of the speech covering topics that have been widely canvassed in Western media recently, a coalition of five Chinese student groups at McMaster issued a statement decrying what they called a “ridiculous anti-China event.”

They said they had contacted the Chinese consulate in Toronto and the university, charging that Turdush’s talk had incited hatred against China.

The university rejected the complaints, saying it stands by all speakers’ freedom of expression.

In fact, the United Nations and various human-rights groups have warned of escalating persecution of the Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province, including “re-education” camps holding a million or more Uyghurs. China says the camps are designed to counter extremism and teach vocational skills.

Turdush says one of four Chinese students in the front row of her talk was videotaping her, as a conversation about the event unfolded in Mandarin on the WeChat app.

“Find out about her son,” a participant in the group discussion writes at one point, after mentioning the consulate knew about the event.

If other people hurt us, smear us, we have to counterattack

Another participant then asks how long the talk will last, saying he would come and create a disturbance. “Hurry up,” said the previous chatter, according to translations obtained by the National Post.

It’s unclear whether the request to investigate the son was pursued.

During the question-and-answer period, Turdush asked the videotaper what he thought about the talk, prompting an angry response. He stalked out of the lecture hall, shouting “F— you” as he left.

The resident of St. Catharines, Ont., said she was appalled that objections to a talk on human rights would emerge from students at a Canadian post-secondary institution.

“How can they infiltrate an academic field like this, trying to export their dominant ideology?” she said. “They have to respect our political culture here.”

Turdush also stressed that she was criticizing the actions of China’s government, not Chinese people.

Asked about her son, university spokesman Gord Arbeau said Friday he cannot confirm the presence of any student at McMaster, but said that generally “student health and well-being is a top priority for the university.”

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