China’s Long Arm

Some tweets superimposed Chinese government slogans over images of a cartoon villain who bears a resemblance to President Xi Jinping. Others included Winnie the Pooh, whose likeness is often banned on the Chinese Internet because it is used to refer unflatteringly to Xi.

For “provocation” in some 40 tweets that “denigrat[ed] a national leader’s image,” Luo Daiqing was sentenced to six months in prison. Luo’s actions, authorities said, “created a negative social impact.”

But Luo didn’t post his comments from China, where Twitter is often blocked by government censors. Instead, he shared them from the United States, where he was studying liberal arts at the University of Minnesota. When he returned home to Wuhan (coincidentally, the epicenter of the coronavirus), he was detained and later sentenced.

The incident raises troubling questions about Chinese influence over students studying abroad. Other students report having been questioned by security officials about their social-media activity. Fears of surveillance can lead Chinese students overseas to self-censor and avoid criticism of the government.

Luo’s imprisonment, however, is an escalation of Chinese efforts to curtail free speech abroad. (The Star Tribune reported receiving a message from Luo’s Minnesota email account that said he had been released and was in Wuhan, which is now under quarantine.) In a statement, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said, “This is what ruthless and paranoid totalitarianism looks like.” It seems certain that the incident will have a further chilling effect on Chinese students studying in the U.S. and elsewhere.

At the same time, it’s fair to ask what role American universities ought to play. A university spokesman told the Star Tribune that Minnesota wasn’t commenting on Luo’s case. On Twitter, Kris Olds, a University of Wisconsin professor and global education expert, laid out a series of issues, including what legal responsibilities colleges have to students in situations like Luo’s, how they ought to respond to authoritarian governments’ increasing digital reach, and whether they ought to advise students from such countries about the phenomenon.

When I shared Olds’ questions online, there was pushback to the idea that colleges ought to act or in any way appear to encourage self-censorship. Human Rights Watch recently proposed a series of guidelines for colleges to adopt to counter potential Chinese threats to free speech and academic freedom on campus, including tracking such incidents and appointing an ombudsman to whom they could be anonymously reported.

Does your institution have policies in place? How would you handle a case like Luo’s? Tell me — as always, you can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn or at

More Visa Revocations

It’s become a familiar story: A student coming to the U.S. for the start of the semester is stopped en route by customs officials and his visa is revoked. In the latest case, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein, an Iranian student attending Northeastern University, was stopped last week when he arrived in Boston, detained, and put on a plane out of the country, despite a judge’s emergency order. Authorities say Dehghani intended to overstay his student visa, something his lawyers dispute. Government officials also suggested that some of his family members had ties to a company that does business with Hezbollah.

Such issues would be grounds for Dehghani to be denied entry, but what’s perplexing about this story is that he waited more than a year for a visa, a process that almost certainly included an extensive review by multiple intelligence agencies. (Practically all Iranian students undergo such scrutiny, which is known as administrative processing.) What could have come up at the border that wouldn’t have been flagged during many months of vetting? The last-minute voiding of visas injects a whole new element of uncertainty into what is already a difficult and opaque process. As another Iranian student whose visa was abruptly canceled this fall told me: “Maybe the political situation is not good, and maybe the U.S. government doesn’t want Iranians in the U.S., but tell them before they get on the flight and their visa is revoked.”

In other visa-related news:

  • The Trump administration could expand the travel ban to a half-dozen additional countries. Of the countries reported to be on the list, only one, Nigeria, sends significant numbers of international students to the U.S. About 13,000 Nigerians study on American campuses, according to the Institute of International Education, making it the 11th-largest source of international students. An announcement could come as early as today, the ban’s third anniversary — or, as it’s known around here, that time I spent my husband’s entire birthday working. And on Tuesday the existing ban faces yet another court challenge, from American citizens and permanent residents whose relatives have been blocked from entering the U.S.
  • Visa officers now have more power to block pregnant women from visiting the United States, under a new rule meant to cut down on birth tourism, or trips designed to gain citizenship for American-born children. However, the rule only applies to visitors on tourist visas, not to students or spouses of students.

What’s Next With the Coronavirus

A member of the Arizona State University community became the fifth person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with the coronavirus. In a statement, state public-health officials said the person, whose relationship to ASU was not spelled out, had recently returned from Wuhan, the Chinese city that has been at the center of the outbreak; did not live in university housing; and was not severely ill.

Meanwhile, several other colleges reported testing students, although no other cases of the respiratory illness have been confirmed. Duke Kunshan University announced it was postponing all classes and programming until February 17, while NYU-Shanghai said it would delay the start of the spring semester by a week. The U.S. government has issued an advisory against traveling to Wuhan. So what next? During the 2003 SARS pandemic, many American colleges suspended programs in China. Will institutions pull back on study abroad in China or restrict faculty travel? How will they accommodate students now returning from China for the start of the spring semester? Tell me what steps you’re taking — I’ll share best practices next week.

Around the Globe

George Soros announced he would commit $1 billion to an effort to integrate teaching and research across universities worldwide to solve big problems.

The oldest Confucius Institute in the U.S., at the University of Maryland, will close because of 2018 legislation that made colleges with the Chinese language and cultural centers ineligible for certain Defense Department funding.

Yale faculty passed a resolution calling on the university to set clear criteria and procedures to determine if and how it should respond to future incidents involving free speech and academic independence at Yale-NUS.

Whoa — two-thirds of all international students at University of California campuses are from a single country, China. Nationally, Chinese students account for a third of international enrollments.

SOAS University London, the prominent institution for studying Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, has canceled all university-funded research leave, citing financial problems.

Students and alumni of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics are circulating a petitionamong academics internationally that urges university administrators to preserve free speech.

Government officials in Iraq are pressuring students to end protests.

Unrest at Ethiopian universities have caused 35,000 students to stop attending classes.

The University of Hong Kong is considering whether to fire a professor who led a pro-democracy movement.

A private education company has signed agreements with three American colleges to provide transfer pathways for international students.

The Education Department is awarding grantsto plan, develop, and carry out programs to strengthen and improve undergraduate instruction in international studies and foreign languages.

“This is a relationship that carries the weight of the past and the burden to speak honestly when concerns do arise,” writes a Yale senior about her university’s ties with China.

And finally …

Twitter is typically a source of aggravation, not a space for feel-good stories. But this thread, about a community rallying around a young Syrian refugee so that he could play hockey with the other kids, is just that.

Newfoundland, you’re the best.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.