McMaster student government bans Chinese students' group from campus

The McMaster Students Union (MSU) revoked privileges of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) after a call by student government representatives to decertify the club, due to its alleged links to the Chinese government.

Group's alleged ties to Chinese government broke student union rules

A sign that reads McMaster University atop a garden patch with a glass building in the background
Several students came forward with concerns about the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, according to the student union. (CBC)

A Chinese students' club at McMaster University has been stripped of its official club status by the school's student union.

The McMaster Students Union (MSU) revoked privileges of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) after a call by student government representatives to decertify the club, due to its alleged links to the Chinese government.

"All students wishing to form a club agree to a specific set of rules regarding their conduct as a club. It was the determination of the SRA (Student Representative Assembly) that CSSA had violated those rules," said MSU President Joshua Marando in an emailed statement.

"I support the students in their decision and commend their work in ensuring students feel safe on campus," he said. 

A speech by an activist critical of the Chinese government's treatment of Uighur Muslims was disrupted at McMaster in February. The activist, Rukiye Turdush, is herself a Uighur and previously told CBC News that students who filmed and shouted during her talk did so under the direction of the Chinese government.

The CSSA said it notified the Chinese consulate in Toronto of Turdush's talk after it occurred, according to a statement, which they authored along with four other McMaster Chinese student groups.

They also accused Turdish's talk of attacking the Chinese government and promoting "separatist activities," according to a translation of the statement. 

Activist Rukiye Turdush says she believes the Chinese government was involved in the disruption of a presentation she gave at McMaster University earlier this year. (Rukiye Turdush/Facebook)

An estimated one million Uighur Muslims are believed to have been detained in the western Xinjiang region of China. They are being held in mass internment camps and subjected to political indoctrination, as reported by several mass media outlets and human rights organizations.

Chinese official Hu Lianhe said those allegations were "completely untrue" at a UN meeting in Geneva in August 2018. A top official in Xinjiang later said the camps were set up as "vocational education" centres.

Vote to de-ratify

Simranjeet Singh, a member of the governing SRA, presented a case to decertify the CSSA's status at a Sept. 22 meeting. He said many students had come forward with concerns.

"The CSSA, which has coordinated closely with Chinese diplomatic officials, has tried to obscure their connections to the Chinese government while simultaneously surveilling and intimidating students on campus who speak out against the Chinese government," Singh said in his presentation to assembly members. A video of the meeting is posted on Facebook.

Singh urged SRA representatives to do "what is right" by de-ratifying the club to "protect McMaster students from possible consequences they may face for simply voicing their concerns and having beliefs that are … legitimate."

Workers walk by the perimeter fence last year of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang, China. The centres have come under condemnation from the West. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Anonymous testimony submitted to the assembly from a student of Chinese ethnicity addressed the relevance of events in Xinjiang and concerns about how the CSSA responded to Turdush's February talk. 

Singh said it was written by a McMaster student whose identity was kept anonymous due to fear for their personal safety. 

"By reporting a Uyghur refugee to a genocidal regime — and thus endangering any family that she may have in China — the CSSA sends a chilling message to students on campus: toe the Party line, or you will also be reported, and thus suffer the consequences," the testimony said. 

Another McMaster student group had its privileges revoked in July when information arose pointing to possible connections with outside groups or people who promote "white supremacist and xenophobic attitudes and activities."

The Dominion Society, which denied such ties, was shut down due to its alleged connection to white supremacy. 

"The CSSA is just as — if not more — dangerous" than the Dominion Society, Singh said. 

CBC News contacted the Chinese embassy for comment but did not hear back. The CSSA could not be reached for comment.

Way of 'maintaining control'

China takes a keen interest in "the activities and welfare of their students overseas," said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Interest on the one hand is to oversee the welfare of students in a "much more hands on way than we would in the West," he said. The other objective is to monitor students who are critical of the Chinese government, which is a way of "maintaining control."

Mulroney applauds the decision by the MSU regarding the CSSA and encourages other Canadian universities to follow suit. Such action would make it "less likely" for groups on other campuses to interfere in Canadian affairs and intimidate students who speak their mind, he said.

The alleged interference by the CSSA against Turdush's talk had the "potential to endanger" students in Canada, Mulroney said, which has no place on university campuses or in the country.

Minorities such as Uighurs and Tibetans in China can be placed in indefinite detention for openly criticizing the state government, he said. 


Justin Mowat


Justin Mowat is a reporter with CBC Hamilton and also spends time in Toronto at News Network. Reach him at: justin.mowat@cbc.ca

with files from Adam Carter