Panel on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China Zoombombed

A panel discussing the Uyghur people—a Muslim-Turkish ethnic population living mainly in the Xinjiang region of western China—was disrupted by Zoom users who wrote “FAKE NEWS” and “Bullshit” on a presenter’s slides and played China’s national anthem, according to students who attended. Attendees and presenters alike were displeased with the results of the panel, according to interviews with The Brandeis Hoot.

The panel, held on Friday, Nov. 13, focused on Uyghur Muslims living in Xinjiang, China. The conflict between Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese government stems from religious differences going back several years, according to a BBC article. After a 2014 attack, tensions escalated and the Chinese government launched an anti-terrorism campaign, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council, that targeted Uyghurs through detention sites. The Chinese government has acknowledged the existence of “re-education centers” for Uyghurs, after previously denying that centers existed.

Before the event, several students came forward with concerns about the panel, according to Leon Grinis ’22. Grinis was awarded with a peace award this fall from the Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies Program (PAX) “to host an online panel of leading experts and scholars on the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China,” according to a joint statement from Grinis and other panel co-sponsors. The Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) club posted in the group’s WeChat page with concerns about how the panel might negatively influence the Chinese community at Brandeis. 

The panel was Zoombombed multiple times with unknown attendees writing on slides and playing the anthem, according to both student attendees and Grinis. The Hoot was unable to confirm who was disrupting the Zoom panel, and one student attendee, Tianqi Zhao ’22, told The Hoot that most participants had their video turned off, making them only identifiable by their screen name. 

After the panel, both the organizers and Brandeis students expressed frustration with its content. Zhao, and other students, criticized the panel for not providing enough academic information or a diversity of viewpoints. Panelists discussed the Zoombombing on Twitter. The panel was not recorded, and no members of The Hoot attended, but The Hoot contacted panel organizers and attendees. 

The panel itself featured five scholars from different universities and a lawyer, according to a description of the event on the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life website that has since been taken down. It was co-sponsored by the Ethics Center and the Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies department. Professor Elanah Uretsky (EAS/IGS) moderated the panel. 

“The hope for this panel was to educate the Brandeis community about the situation in Xinjiang from an objective and non-politicized perspective,” wrote Grinis, Professor Gordie Fellman (PAX/SOC/WGS), Interim Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life Melissa Stimell (LGLS) and Academic Administrator Lauren Jordahl (PAX) in a joint statement to The Hoot. 

“In this way, we can build tolerance, understanding, and stronger relationships in the community. It is our hope that we can create a space within the University for safe objective discussion of this and other topics that are often fraught with intense emotions and misunderstandings,” the statement read.

Two panelists, James Milward of Georgetown University and Rayhan Asat from Hughes Hubbard Lawyer, commented on the Zoombombing on Twitter. Milward called the Zoombombing a “coordinated disruption,” linking the CSSA WeChat post. Zhao mentioned that several users replied to the panelists on Twitter with anti-China comments. 

Asat wrote on Twitter, “A #Chinese student hijacked my screen & [sic] kept writing all over to prevent me keep [sic] continuing. It was a tough moment. I still maintained my professionalism and called for civility and respect for academic freedom.” In subsequent tweets, Asat described the event as traumatizing. 

Stimell sent an email out to students who raised concerns over the panel on Nov. 18, said Zhao.

“While some of the questions during the Q&A expressed genuine curiosity and sought to extend the conversation, others were made in an especially hostile manner that was offensive and disrespectful of the speakers and the intent of this event,” part of Stimell’s email read.

Students raised concerns in a feedback form organized by Student Union Undergraduate Diversity and Inclusion Officer Panny Tao ’21. About seven students, with some writing anonymously, provided feedback on the panel. Many stated that panelists muted participants when speaking during the question and answer portion, with different students describing that decision as “unprofessional” or “justified.”

Zhao, who also authored a Medium post on the panel and attended the first hour, said the panelists did not provide enough academic information. “I do know that there are a lot of stereotypes going on around academia and among others, so I really [wanted] to get something insightful and interesting from the panel,” Zhao told The Hoot in an interview. 

But he said he felt the panel was not a “scholarly presentation of diverse viewpoints” because “if you ignore another part of the story, even if you graduated from Harvard or from Yale, you are not scholarly.” 

As a person born in Xinjiang, Zhao believed that he has more insight into the issue than other students. “I was back in Xinjiang one summer ago, everything was pretty peaceful,” he explained. “The economy started to grow, and everyone started to work. There hasn’t been a terrorist act for three years.” 

He advised the panelists to go to Xinjiang and make first-hand observations now. “If the government is killing thousands of people, it can never be hidden. There is no physical genecide going on. If there is a cultural genocide, it is something tricky to debate about,” he said.

This panel was about a more controversial topic than typical events sponsored by the Ethics center or PAX, which often host events about social justice, art and peaceful learning.

This panel, however, tackled a long and complicated relationship between the Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese government. In the early 20th century, Uyghurs Muslims in Xinjiang declared independence from China, but the region was reclaimed by China in 1949, according to a BBC article. Xinjiang is designated as an autonomous region within China, but Xinjiang has little autonomy from the Chinese government, according to the article

Over the years, Uyghur activists have argued that the Chinese government was infringing on their religious practices through governmental policies, according to the article. China is designated as an atheist state, the government only labels five religions as legitimate, including: Buddhism, Catholicism, Dauis, Islam and Protestantism, according to a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council

Despite being recognized by the government, people of varying faiths experience violations of their religious freedom, including the closure of their places of worship, according to that same report. Chinese governmental authorities have stated that they do not accept Uyghurs and other Muslims to prevent activities that “disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State,” according to the report.  

Tensions escalated in 2014 when the Kunming Attack occurred, an event which left 29 dead and more than 100 others wounded according to a BBC article. The Chinese government labeled the attack as a “terrorist attack” committed by Uyghur Muslims from the Northwest Xinjiang province, according to the same article. The Chinese government then launched a one year campaign against terrorism, according to a document from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The campaign targeted Uyghurs escalating tensions between the two groups. 

“The terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ have also been over-extended to those who merely wish to peacefully practice their rightful freedom of speech or religion,” according to the document. “In this way, the Chinese authorities have been trying to legitimize their own actions taken against Uyghur activists and demonstrators.” 

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an Australian organization aiming to inform the public on various issues according to their webpage, launched The Xinjiang Data Project. This project has compiled information which identifies 380 potential detention sites being used in the Xinjiang Uyghur region, according to the document. The project highlights the “re‑education” camps, detention centers and prisons which have been newly built or expanded since 2017 in the area, according to the document

There are 350 facilities reported by The Xinjiang Data Project’s findings, as of 2020, with a 37 percent growth rate from 2017 to 2019. According to the document, through the use of the latest satellite imagery of the region, there are still at least 14 facilities under construction in 2020. 

The Xinjiang region is experiencing social stability and unity across different populations, according to Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, as reported by the BBC, in response to the claims being made regarding the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Western authorities are attempting to interfer with China’s anti-terrorism efforts and are “slandering and smearing” China, the ambassador said.  

The ambassador also noted that the region has not experienced a “terrorist attack” in the past three years in Xinjiang, according to the BBC article.  

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