Toronto police probe online abuse of Tibetan-Canadian student leader

Chemi Lhamo in an undated file photo.

Chemi Lhamo in an undated file photo. Courtesy Chemi Lhamo

By Tom Blackwell | National Post

ON THE WEB, 2 March 2019

The torrent of abuse Chinese students and others directed at a Tibetan-Canadian student leader in Toronto has now become a police matter.

Detectives have begun investigating whether some of the thousands of angry online texts Chemi Lhamo received after being elected as a University of Toronto student-union president constitute criminal threats, Toronto police confirmed Wednesday.

The Internet barrage — and a petition signed by 11,000 people demanding Lhamo be removed from the position — was one of two incidents at Ontario universities this month that have raised the spectre of Chinese government interference on Canadian campuses.

Muslim and Tibetan student groups have called on the federal government to investigate whether such incursions did occur. China’s embassy in Ottawa has denied playing a part in either episode.

Meanwhile, Lhamo said university police have asked her to develop a safety plan in the wake of the online deluge, which would include letting them know where she is on campus hour by hour.

“It is a little threatening, to be roaming around hallways knowing that at any time I could be attacked,” she said in an interview. “We came to Canada hoping for a better quality of life. To be bullied even here … catches up on your mental health sometimes.”

Lhamo, 22, is a Canadian citizen of Tibetan descent who immigrated from India with her family 11 years ago. She was elected as president of the student union at the U of T’s Scarborough campus in early February. Though she is an advocate for Tibetan independence, she did not campaign on that issue and says she has no plans to make it part of her role as president.

But in the wake of her election, thousands of messages flooded her Instagram account, often crudely abusive and accusing her of being disloyal to China, a country where she has never lived.

The change.org petition — digitally signed almost entirely by people with Chinese names — suggested that her devotion to the Tibetan cause is “irrational” and an affront to international students at the university.

Beijing sees the movement for a free Tibet as a major threat; along with advocacy for the Uyghur minority, Taiwan, democracy in China and the Falun Gong sect, it is one of what the Chinese Communist party sometimes calls the “five poisons.”

Lhamo said the Instagram texts included ones saying “Wish you would die young”; “The bullet for your penalty is made in China”; and “I kill all your family.”

The section of the Criminal Code dealing with harassment makes it an offence to engage in threatening behaviour or repeatedly communicate in a way that leaves someone fearing for their safety.

It’s too early, though, to say if any criminal acts did occur, said Det. Anthony Rutherford, who is heading the Toronto police review after an earlier investigation by campus police.

“There are approximately 15,000 different posts in various languages,” he said. “We’re going to have to go through all that … It needs some follow-up and more time.”

An online update to the petition said it was not meant as a “personal attack, character assassination or threat of any kind,” but to voice disapproval of Lhamo’s “participation in political campaigns that were clearly against Chinese history, Chinese laws and Chinese students’ rights.”

The unsigned note warned, however, against posting abusive or threatening messages that would “greatly influence … how others think about Chinese international students.”

The other incident occurred at McMaster University in Hamilton, where five Chinese student groups protested the university’s decision to allow a talk by Rukiye Turdush, a Canadian citizen of Uyghur background. Turdush discussed human-rights abuses against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in China whose persecution has been well documented by Western media and human-rights organizations.

A statement posted by the Chinese students said the talk incited anti-China hatred, and mentioned they had notified their home country’s consulate in Toronto.

Students for a Free Tibet co-signed the letter requesting a federal probe of Beijing’s possible role, but Lhamo said she had no proof that Chinese officials were involved in the backlash against her.


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