TORONTO, Canada, 15 February 2019
What might otherwise be the usual mudslinging around a student election has turned into a political firestorm on a Toronto university campus, where a newly-elected student president is raising questions about the source of pro-China attacks against her.
On Saturday morning, Chemi Lhamo, 22, learned she’d been elected student president at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus (UTSC).
By noon, her phone was buzzing incessantly with notifications. But instead of messages of congratulations, Lhamo, who was born in Tibet, realized a photo she’d posted on Instagram for the Lunar New Year was attracting thousands of hateful comments, most rife with anti-Tibet sentiment, some threatening.
“China is your daddy — you better know this,” read one comment.
“Ur not gonna be the president of UTSC,” read another. “Even if you do, we will make sure things get done so u won’t survive a day. Peace RIP.”
That wasn’t all. A petition calling on Lhamo to step down had amassed nearly 10,000 signatures.
And there was a message on the Chinese mobile service We Chat making the rounds, calling on Chinese international students to stop Lhamo from becoming president.
The message, posted by the account Ladder Street, said: “The U of T student union is about to be controlled by Tibetan separatists.” The message also says Lhamo shouldn’t benefit from the millions of dollars brought in each year by Chinese students.
“At first, of course, it takes you aback,” Lhamo said in an interview with CBC News.
“As a leader within the community, it’s heartbreaking to see sometimes that your constituents or your students that you are so passionate about serving are upset about you.”
Foreign influence ‘beyond plausible’
Beyond that, Lhamo said she is worried about her safety and took her concerns to the University of Toronto. On Monday, the students union made the decision to close her office due to security concerns.
The onslaught of hate also has Lhamo questioning whether larger forces might be behind the harassment.
That’s something Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior CSIS official for the Asia-Pacific region, said would be entirely consistent with what he observed during his 40 years in the intelligence service.
“I would have expected such a thing … particularly because she’s a young woman who has been actively involved in her circle of free Tibet,” said Juneau-Katsuya, acknowledging he didn’t have definitive proof of foreign influence in Lhamo’s case.
Lhamo’s participation in groups supportive of Tibetan independence from China would have made her a threat in the eyes of the Chinese intelligence services, Juneau-Katsuya said.
Asked if Chinese government forces might be at play in the campaign against Lhamo, Juneau-Katsuya said, “it’s beyond plausible.”
“The university centres have always been a great pull of attraction for either stealing intellectual property or trying to influence politically,” he said.
Academic cautions against ‘hyped-up’ allegations
As an example, Juneau-Katsuya cited the Confucius Institute, a Beijing-run cultural organization which has been criticized as an attempt by the Chinese government to conduct surveillance and extend its political influence.
Over the years, several Confucius Institute programs across Canada and the United States have closed amid concerns about their aims, with the Toronto District School Board voting to end its partnership with the organization in 2014.
“It is their strategy to try to undermine, to try to mute any form of opposition or dissidence that could at one point or another gain access to a mic,” Juneau-Katsuya said.
But at least one academic cautions against making assumptions about the source of the vitriol.
Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said that in the wake of the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and subsequent arrest of two Canadians in China, “public opinion has shifted significantly against the Chinese community.
“It is of utmost importance to separate Chinese students, individuals, companies from the Chinese government,” said Ong. “Given the tense bilateral Canada-China relations now, any hyped-up allegations without firm evidence does no good to any parties.”
Chinese embassy doesn’t respond
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa didn’t respond to questions about the extent of its involvement with student groups on Canadian campuses or whether it has a position on Lhamo’s election.
The Ladder Street, a student group at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, did not respond to inquiries about whether it was behind the WeChat message or whether it receives support from the Chinese government.
Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Asked if the University of Toronto was investigating the source of the online vitriol against Lhamo, spokesperson Don Campbell said, “We continue to be in touch with the student. The extent of our focus is on making sure she feels safe and is aware of university services available to her.”
Lhamo said she would like to see more action from the university, including a formal investigation.
For now, she said she sees the online attacks against her as an opportunity to put the values she said she was raised with into practice.
“This is my chance … to test myself whether or not I can be patient and have compassion for other entities that don’t necessarily feel the same way towards me.”