On March 8, Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Assembly Executive Committee issued a statement in an effort to offer solidarity to the Asian students of the campus in light of a recent surge in hate-crimes against Asian Americans. The CMU is a top private university in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA.
However, just two weeks later, the Graduate Student Assembly (GSU), with support from the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) administration, released an apology for its statement. This apology is the result of a campaign from pro-China students and other pro-China people in general, specifically taking issue with the original statement’s reference to the genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China and the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
The original March 8 statement made a passing reference to the “protests in India”, “escalations against Hong Kong’s democracy movement”, and “internment camps and forced labor in Xinjiang.” These events were described as “traumatic” in the March 8 statement that could “add to the stress our peers are feeling during this time.”
From the very next day itself, the GSA committee members started receiving multiple emails and messages on social media from both the campus and elsewhere, denouncing the committee’s decision to associate “stress” with China’s human rights violations. These emails and messages claimed that the inclusion of Chinese atrocities in the statement would amount to tacit approval of bigotry on part of the GSA against Asian Americans in the USA as some sort of justified reaction against the Chinese Government’s atrocities. Some emails even believed the reports of Chinese atrocities the GSA cited to be fake news.
However, no outrage was raised in regard to the inclusion of the Farmers protest in India in the original statement. No claims were made as to whether the inclusion of “protests in India” into the March 8 statement would result in a wave of Anti-Indian American bigotry or bigotry against Indian communities. But, the inclusion of atrocities happening in China, which amounts to genocide in Western Xinjiang according to the U.S. Government, was a bridge too far for CMU’s GSA committee.
On March 20, the University’s fence was painted with the message, ” GSA MUST APOLOGIZE, RISE UP AGAINST RACISM, GSA RACIST RESIGN.” Clearly a very articulate message.
On March 21, a petition on Change.org was launched against the GSA, calling upon the GSA to, “Acknowledge the harm that has been caused by this inappropriate and insensitive language which permits the inference that the violent and racist acts against Asians in the United States are justified because of unrelated alleged acts and circumstances occurring in Asia.” This petition managed to gain more than 3,000 signatures on Change.org.
Some Indian students opposed the GSA’s political stand
It is important to note that some Indian students of CMU also signed this petition. A signatory of the petition, Chirag Nagpal wrote, “As an Indian student it is deeply disappointing that the GSA took a political stance on a contentious issue like the farmers protest in India. I feel like the GSA has no locus standi to pass such uninformed judgements and undermine the democratic ideals of the Indian Nation and it’s constitution.”
Another Indian signatory Pravesh Kothari wrote, “I cannot fathom a logical reason for including this language in a letter intended to support our students in face of a devastating race-based attack.”
The GSA’s March 8 statement was also posted on Reddit to pro-China subreddits like r/Sino, where the GSA statement was described as, ” “Carnegie Mellon university attempts to justify the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes with sinophobic US State Department talking points on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”
Carnegie Mellon GSA issued apology for the Uyghur reference
Finally on March 22, after two weeks of relentless emails, messages, petitions, etc., the GSA in consultation with the CMU administration issued an apology and placed the original statement directly underneath it.
The apology statement reads, “We acknowledge and regret that some of the topics we chose to address at that moment distracted from our core message, and we apologize for causing pain in the communities we were trying to support. We have removed the message from our website, and will consider the feedback we were offered as we promote future programming and communications designed to support our diverse CMU community.”
Dacen Waters, the former President of the GSA Executive Committee in response to GSA’s apology statement said, “There’s nothing racist in that statement; just bringing attention to the Uyghur genocide or Hong Kong protests is not racist. GSA is a political organization. We criticize the U.S. government, we criticize CMU. We’re not going to hold back here.”
It’s “100% the case” that criticism of China was the main cause for the negative reaction, Waters said
This particular episode shines a light on the soft power and enormous influence of China on American universities and campuses. Criticisms of China, even based on genocidal atrocities, can be hand-waved away in the name of fighting the spectre of racism. The episode also reveals the lack of Indian soft-power to offer counter to anti-India narratives in US universities and organisations.
The few unorganized Indian students in CMU did try to sign a petition in order to remove references to the protests in India from the original statement. But they did not have an organizational structure behind them emailing, messaging, and launching petitions against the GSU committee, unlike the Chinese students. India has the human capital to challenge Western narratives in the West, but not the political will or vision.