How Beijing puts pressure on Chinese students in Switzerland

How Beijing puts pressure on Chinese students in Switzerland
How Beijing puts pressure on Chinese students in Switzerland

Chinese students in Switzerland (here, as an illustration, the EPFL learning center) feel the repression of the Xi Jinping regime.Image: Keystone/gatty/watson

Nearly 4,000 Chinese study at a Swiss university. The regime takes care to control these young people through repressive means. By putting, for example, pressure on relatives who remained in the country.

Christoph Bernet / ch media

After the Germans, the French and the British, the Chinese constitute the fourth largest group of foreigners in Swiss universities. 3,810 nationals of the People’s Republic of China are enrolled in a Swiss university for the current academic year (2023/24).

However, their life in Switzerland is clearly different from that of other foreign students. The freedoms of expression, research and assembly guaranteed by the Constitution hardly apply to them, even on Swiss soil.

Indeed, the Beijing regime uses coercion, threats and harassment against these students and their relatives living in China.

For fear of reprisals, these students refrain from expressing themselves politically or even from participating in classes on topics deemed inappropriate by Beijing. They self-censor at university and in their private lives and isolate themselves from the academic and social life of their university for fear of regime informants.

This is what emerges from a new study by the human rights organization Amnesty International. The authors analyzed the situation in eight Western countries, including Switzerland. They also relied on interviews with more than 30 Chinese students.

Fear reigns among Chinese students

Their testimonies are frightening:

  • Almost all respondents said they censored themselvesboth online and in real life.
  • A third of them said that the prevailing climate of fear had changed the direction of their studiesmoving them away from politically sensitive subjects in favor of less suspect themes.
  • The repression exercised by the regime nevertheless remains diffuse, which also causes problems. Students do not know exactly how surveillance mechanisms work and which statements have consequences.
  • Nearly half of those surveyed said they were concerned that other Chinese students do not report critical statements to the authorities.
  • And more than 50% of them declared suffer from psychological problems because of their fear.

For Amnesty International, the results of the interviews and other sources prove beyond doubt that the Chinese regime resorts to “transnational repression”. Beijing would use different tools for this, and it would not always be easy to prove the direct involvement of state actors.

The evidence exists

However, in certain cases, this is indisputable. Thus, several interviewees recount how their relatives living in China were visited by the police. Officials asked their families to ensure that their loved ones studying abroad stop making political statements. The parents of a politically active student were even forced to stop financially supporting their daughter.

Nearly half of those surveyed said they had been photographed or otherwise observed at public events. A student explained how her father was visited by the police at home in China, a few hours after participating in a ceremony commemorating the Tiananmen massacre in her university town.

Furthermore, many Chinese students interviewed by Amnesty International say they have been warned before starting studies abroad, for example by professors from Chinese universities. The warning is clear: be loyal to the Beijing government, even in the West, and report inappropriate activities by other Chinese students.

Under Xi Jinping, pressure has increased

Historian Ariane Knüsel, a specialist in Sino-Swiss relations and China’s espionage activities abroad, is not surprised by the report’s conclusions. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, freedom of expression, already difficult, has become virtually impossible, she says. According to the expert, in recent years, the international focus has been strengthened:

“The regime is trying to impose the Chinese point of view abroad as well, and Chinese students play an important role in this process.”

Our expert explains that the regime has the upper hand over Chinese students because the surveillance and repression apparatus, which has grown massively in recent years, makes it easier to put pressure on relatives in China.

Swissuniversities, the umbrella association of Swiss universities, was unable to answer detailed questions about the new Amnesty report before Ascension weekend. She referred to a “Guide for responsible international cooperation” published in 2022. It notably mentions the dangers concerning academic freedom when collaborating with universities from repressive states.

Translated and adapted from German by Léa Krejci

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