Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 23 May 2008

Earthquake aid and the politics of campus organisations

Yesterday, an official from the education section of the Chinese consulate gave a speech in support of a donation drive on the Macquarie University campus to aid earthquake victims. The drive was organised on the consulate’s behalf by the Macquarie chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Club of New South Wales, and the organisers were all government-sent (gongpai) students or visiting scholars (this was their term; i.e. holders of China Scholarship Council scholarships). For a while, there was a Chinese flag at the donation stall, and lots of messages on post-it notes stuck on a noticeboard — some wishing Sichuan well, some saying “Go China”, mostly in Chinese.

Today the stall was gone and replaced by one run by the Chinese Student Association, with the proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross. The students told me that CSA was in fact under Macquarie University’s Overseas Student Association, but at the same time part of a national (or statewide?) Chinese Student Association, which received government funding to foster the representation of overseas students’ concerns. In other words, neither organisation is truly independent; one was formed in response to New South Wales government prompting, the other to that by the Chinese embassy!

The three students manning the booth had all gone to the Canberra “torch-protection” event, and I asked them whether it was true that the embassy organised transportation. They said the embassy, via its own Student Association (!), did organise buses, but none of these three students were involved in that; they organised themselves via BBS. They estimated only 1/20 of the people there were organised by the embassy. One student, Ling, proudly said he organised 11 buses with 75 people.

All three students saw the Canberra event as very successful, but their evaluation of the event was more complex than that of two Macquarie students I had spoken to earlier. Ling denied that any violence occurred. Maggie, a media student, acknowledged that there had been violence, but only a minority of Chinese students were involved. Only five people were arrested. On the whole, in her view, the students were very restrained, considering they were all young people in a very emotional state, and they were being taunted. So it’s understandable they responded, although what they did wasn’t right. Ling thought we can’t rule out that these were provocateurs pretending to be Chinese students, so as to attract the attention of Western media.

I remarked that to many Westerners, it is not understandable that students have to go out to defend such a powerful country as China. Maggie said: “When I watch Western media, my impression is not that this is a powerful country. I feel that China is a victim and I get angry.” Western media are biased, but “needless to say, Chinese media are completely controlled by the gov’t. Western media are playing a very important role in pushing China towards human rights.”

I am sure that the embassy organisation played only a minor role in the eventual mobilization. But I think it’s significant, and surprising, that the embassy did initiate the counterdemonstration, even though it was clear that it would only further compromise China’s image in Western media. I suppose they felt they couldn’t afford another torch-snatching incident. But why? To prevent more nationalist reactions inside China? Or to generate them? Who were they sending a message to? Was it a populistic gesture to Chinese students?



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