On August 26, a small protest organized by pro-Hong Kong students at the University of Queensland in Australia was aggressively interrupted by more than 200 mainland Chinese students, followed by similar clashes in many major cities, such as Christchurch, New York, Berlin and Paris. Three male Chinese students physically attacked a female student from Hong Kong at the University of Auckland over the issue of the now-suspended extradition bill. Edwin Kwong, a Melbourne-based public-health student, has received threats after a photo was shared in WeChat groups, where he was accused of being a separatist because he attended a rally for democracy in Hong Kong.
On August 17, I was in Trafalgar Square in London observing a loud and adversarial rally consisting of mainland Chinese students, organized in order to challenge a solidarity march of Hong Kong people. Mainland students were passionately waving Chinese flags and chanting slogans such as “China is one country” and “Hong is part of China forever.” In the same week, an online campaign was launched by China Central Television (CCTV) to guard the “Chinese flag,” which has since received 1.4 billion likes and 5 billion views, largely from Chinese millennials. At the height of the Hong Kong movement, thousands of Chinese students from all over the world commented on social media platforms, criticizing the protest and labeling its participants as terrorists and separatists.
As a student for years, at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as Cambridge and Oxford, I have been privileged to engage with many top Chinese students. I was overwhelmed by their irrational nationalism and their ignorance about democracy and the entire discourse of human rights. Zhang Wei, a business student at Oxford, who had already spent three years abroad, once asked me, “Why are Tibetans still not happy despite China has built railways for high-speed trains, and highways?” Beginning from kindergarten, Chinese millennials have been trained to believe the official Chinese version of stories and dismiss all other voices.
Why is this the case?
China has adopted an education system that brainwashes its youth from elementary school to the university level, which thoroughly and fundamentally destroys their ability to critique. Vicky X Xu, a journalist now living in Australia, remembers her school days in China, “Where the No 1 criterion to be a good student, a good citizen, is to love the government without question. Compulsory Student Handbook Rule No 1 is to be loyal to the party.” The state has fired and jailed thousands of educators and university scholars who have been critical of the Communist Party of China. For example, Liu Xiaobo, a public educator and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was tortured to death in 2017.
China utilizes the politics of historical memory to mobilize nationalism among millennials. The historical mantras of “100 years of humiliation” and “the invasion of foreign imperialist powers” became the central themes of its patriotic education campaign. At the same time, China disproportionately glorifies “5,000 years of civilization” and its possible future as a “world superpower.” Top China expert James Harrison considers “the rewriting of Chinese history as the most massive attempt at ideological re-education in human history.”
The Chinese state filters information through its extensive censorship system, and also bans all external social-media platforms, replacing them with similar Chinese state-controlled social media, such as WeChat for Facebook, Sina Weibo for Twitter, Youku for YouTube, and Baidu for Google. To push the propaganda even further, the Chinese state fakes millions of social-media comments every year, twisting the narrative of truth. China Daily proudly terms this as “the rational nationalism.”
Abroad, many mainland Chinese students hardly spend any time with fellow international students: They eat at Chinese restaurants and hang out with Chinese friends. Wang Wei, a computing student at Cambridge University, who spent a year at Dublin University and two years at King’s College in London, reflected, “I never did hang out with non-Chinese students and hardly had a conversation with them.” Xiu Ying, a female student at University College of London, said she has not tried to meet other students because she is “happier and more comfortable with fellow Chinese buddies.” Plus, she was also advised by her parents not to become “too Westernized.”
Even abroad, most of the time, Chinese students still use Chinese social-media platforms and receive daily information from those media. At the University College of London, I shared a student dormitory with eight Chinese and one Japanese student for a summer holiday. One night, we had a debate about Hong Kong during a friend’s birthday party. Li Jing, a student of biological science at UCL, confidently remarked, “Hong Kong protesters brutally attacked many innocent members of the police personnel; the protesters are terrorists.” Zhang Yong, an MBA student, added another argument: “Hong Kong protesters are traitors paid off by Western powers to destroy China.” Because of their education and the environment of their upbringing, it is not surprising that Chinese students directly replicate fake news coming from Chinese social media.
If you challenge them, they think you hate China. If you keep silence, they assume that you agree with the Chinese narrative.