Updated 8:24 p.m.
Amid planned counter-protests by Chinese students, an anti-Chinese Communist Party event at Columbia was canceled one day before the event was scheduled to occur due to operational conflicts.
In response to the event’s cancellation, a number of scholars and students across social media highlighted concerns regarding the threat of free speech at universities in light of pro-Beijing Chinese protesters and the ability to host open discussions on the subject of China at U.S. universities.
Among all Chinese student groups in foreign univ., only CSSA has the power to organize political activities, like a protest against a panel discussion. And last night we heard Chinese students at Columbia did protest at the venue we were supposed to talk. (but we don't have pics)— 滕彪 (@tengbiao) November 16, 2019
Amnesty International groups at New York University and Columbia scheduled an event discussing human rights violations by the Chinese Communist Party for Thursday, Nov. 14, but the event did not occur due to venue cancellations at Columbia, according to panelist Teng Biao. The event was intended to feature panelists including human rights activists Biao, Roxanne Chang, Dorjee Tseten, Rushan Abbas, and Rose Tang.
Initially, NYU did not have the classroom space availability and organizers failed to officially book a space I the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life because the request did not go through the formal process to book event space.
Once the organizers were informed of the cancellation, they attempted to book a second space four days before the scheduled date in a last-ditch attempt to host the event at Prentis Hall, Biao said. However, the attempt still failed to go through official channels of the University that all student organizations must utilize to host discussions and other events, leading to its cancellation, according to a University spokesperson. Prentis Hall also does not serve as a venue for public events.
“The student organization has the opportunity to reschedule the event if they would like to do that and the panel discussion will be welcomed at Columbia once our standard event procedures are followed,” the spokesperson said.
Organizers and the University were informed Thursday afternoon that students planned on protesting the event, following which the University notified the organizers the event could not occur due because the event had not been booked through official channels. In response to the cancellation, the event panelists released a letter condemning the University and its Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
The letter claimed that counter-protests were organized by the CSSA, and that members have organized in groups across multiple universities to respond to events critical of the Chinese government; CSSAs across the United States have faced scrutiny for their contact and at times financial relationships with Chinese consulates. Neither NYU or Columbia’s CSSA responded to a request for comment.
Biao, upset by the last-minute cancellation, emphasized his frustration with the protesters’ efforts to stop the event.
“This is not new. Chinese students and Chinese government does all kinds of influential operations that puts academic freedom in danger,” Biao said. “Academic freedom is a fundamental element of a university and without free speech, freedom of research, free discussion—there won’t be prominence in those things.”
Zhou Fengsuo, a former Tiananmen Square student leader and co-founder of Humanitarian China, said the trend in anti-democracy reactions to events on human rights in China is alarming. He was previously the fifth most-wanted student by the Chinese government following the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, and remains involved in pro-democracy activism.
“For the last 30 years, it’s been frustrating what we’re fighting for,” he said. “And we’re only getting farther due to the growing economy and influence of the Chinese [Communist] Party.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that both Columbia and New York University had cancellations in venue; in fact, only Columbia had officially cancelled a venue for the event.