Chinese officials pressured Concordia University to cancel event with Uighur activist

Chinese officials pressured a Montreal-based human rights research institute affiliated with Concordia University to cancel a conference featuring a prominent exiled Uighur leader, says one of the organizers.

China director at Human Rights Watch urges colleges and universities to stand together

Dolkun Isa is the president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress and was asked to speak at the event. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Chinese officials pressured a Montreal-based human rights research institute affiliated with Concordia University to cancel a conference featuring a prominent exiled Uighur leader, says one of the organizers of the event.

Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia University, said he received an email from the Chinese consul general in Montreal on Monday, asking him for an urgent meeting to discuss a planned conference on the Uighur minority in China.

While he chose to ignore the request and went ahead with the conference on Tuesday as planned, Matthews said he later found out that the consul general was also putting pressure on different people in Montreal to get Concordia University to annul the event.

"I think that's problematic, it goes against freedom of speech, it goes against the right of universities to talk about complex issues and contemporary issues," Matthews told Radio Canada International on Wednesday.

"This I think shows that a university event attracting 30 people was deemed to be a major foreign policy priority for the Chinese government to disrupt and try to end."

Wang Wenzhang, Chinese consul general in Montreal, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to Radio Canada International's request for comment in time for publication.

Phone calls to the Chinese consulate in Montreal also have gone unanswered.

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China in 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

'A massive internment camp'

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in northwestern China who accuse Beijing of religious and political persecution. Beijing, in turn, says Uighur dissidents are leading an Islamic separatist movement.

International human rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, as well as the UN have been sounding the alarm over the situation facing the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, Matthews said.

A UN panel of human rights experts said last August it had received many credible reports that one million ethnic Uighurs in China were being held in what resembles a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy."

The institute was approached by the Uighur community in Canada to talk about the situation in Xinjaing, Matthews said.

Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, was doing a tour of North America and was asked to speak at the event, Matthews said.

"A lot Uighurs have not heard from family members, UN diplomats have not been able to travel to see the situation, so we thought it was important to talk about this," Matthews said.

Ethnic Uighur people walk in front of a giant screen with a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the main city square in Kashgar in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China in 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

"We talk about situations related to genocide, mass atrocity crimes, and gross human rights violations in many-many countries and we decided to have the president of the World Uighur Congress come and speak to us about what was happening in Xinjiang, China."

A thorn in China's side

Matthews said Beijing doesn't like to talk about human rights and Chinese officials have dismissed what has been happening in Xinjiang as a counter-terrorism operation.

Other Canadian universities that have featured speakers critical of China's policies in Xinjiang and Tibet have also faced pressure from Chinese students on campus who have coordinated their campaigns with Chinese officials, Matthews said.

The Washington Post reported in February that Chinese students at McMaster University in Ontario attempted to disrupt a talk by an Uighur filmmaker, he said.

It's imperative that universities uphold the principle of academic freedom, Matthews said.

"It's the main reason that we've achieved so much social, economic and scientific progress throughout history and why our universities are ranked among the best in the world," Matthews said. "I think we should be very, very careful of any government trying to censor [them]."

The incident at MIGS also comes just as Human Rights Watch urged universities last week to resist the Chinese government's efforts to undermine academic freedom abroad.

On March 21, the international rights group published a 12-point Code of Conduct for colleges and universities to adopt to respond to Chinese government threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars, and educational institutions.

"Colleges and universities that stand together are better equipped to resist Chinese government harassment and surveillance on campuses, visa denials, and pressures to censor or self-censor," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

"Most important, they will be better prepared to ensure academic freedom on their campuses for all students and scholars, particularly those from China."