May 27, 2024

Fear, isolation and self-censorship: China closely monitors its students at Swiss universities

There are approximately 4,000 Chinese students enrolled in Swiss universities, here ETH Zurich. The regime in Beijing is also putting pressure on them from afar. (archive photo)

Keystone/Walter Perry

China’s influence extends to Swiss universities: A new report shows how Beijing is also putting pressure on Chinese students here. Fear of repression has consequences.

no time? Blue News sums it up for you

  • Chinese students at Swiss universities are under pressure from their home country.
  • An Amnesty International report shows that Beijing’s repression threatens nearly 4,000 affected people.
  • Also in this country, students cannot conduct research freely and critically.

Free science, critical thinking, unhindered research: what should be self-evident at Swiss universities does not seem to apply to all those enrolled. According to a new report from Amnesty International Students from China are also under pressure from Beijing here. Accordingly, the regime uses threats and coercion against its citizens and their families in their homeland.

The human rights organization, which examined the situation in Switzerland and other European countries for the purposes of the study, relies, among other things, on statements from 30 Chinese students interviewed. With 3,810 people currently enrolled, they represent the fourth largest group of non-Swiss at local universities after the Germans, French and Britons.

Self-censorship and isolation

Because of their fear of repression, students monitor themselves at university and in their private lives, according to the report. The result: they refrain from making political statements and do not attend courses that may seem inappropriate for the Chinese regime. Because of their fear of spies, they do not participate in the academic and social life of universities and isolate themselves. Half of those surveyed reported having been spotted and photographed at public protests.

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Almost all of them said they practiced self-censorship online and offline. A third of those surveyed stated that they focused their studies on topics that were more or less politically suspect. For more than half, constant fear led to psychological problems. This is also due to the unclear function of monitoring: according to the study, about 50 percent of those interviewed fear that other Chinese students will report them if they use critical tones.

Repression against families

Students also fear repression against their families back home. Many of them told Amnesty International about police visits to their relatives in China. The state therefore asked them to ensure that family members studying abroad did not express themselves politically – and sometimes also to refrain from providing financial support.

Even if it is not always possible to prove the involvement of state actors beyond a reasonable doubt, it is clear to Amnesty International, based on interviews and other sources, that the regime in Beijing is engaging in “transnational repression” using various strategies. The research shows “that these young people cannot escape government repression even outside China,” said Sarah Brooks, an expert at Amnesty International in China.

“Chinese authorities have developed a sophisticated strategy to restrict the human rights of students around the world,” Brooks said. Surveillance of students abroad and targeted harassment of their family members in China is a “systematic tactic to control Chinese citizens remotely.”

Criticism of universities

The human rights organization also criticizes the universities’ reaction. Countries with students from China or Hong Kong, including Switzerland, have a duty to protect international students. According to expert Brooks, universities are “often unaware of transnational repression and the resulting paralyzing climate on their campuses, and are therefore poorly placed to deal with it.”

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But even if host country universities and governments are responsible for protecting registrants, “Chinese authorities are ultimately responsible for the repression described in the report.”