Chemi Lhamo received numerous threats after her election as student union president earlier this year
Death threats and abuse targeted at a pro-Tibetan university student in Toronto likely originated from Chinese diplomats in Canada, a consultant to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has told Free Tibet.
The threats against the University of Toronto student indicate an increasingly aggressive stance in China’s foreign policy as its economic rise continues, the CSIS consultant, Charles Burton, said.
In February this year, Chemi Lhamo made headlines in Canada when she was elected president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Student Union to a wave of online abuse and death threats from seemingly independent Chinese students.
On 8 February, days before her victory was announced, an online petition was launched which gained over 10,000 signatures demanding that she be stopped from becoming president. It said that she was “deep into” a group called Free Tibet and “irrational” about it.
Online comments were posted where some people said they hoped she would die or be raped.
“You’re going to get shot and the bullets are going to be made in China,” said one person online. “Tibet is a part of China,” said another. “There is only one China forever, you dark-skinned whore.”
Lhamo won the election, but the university fearing for her safety called Toronto police. In March she told Free Tibet it was possible the case would be escalated to Canada’s intelligence service, the CSIS, if the government suspected that China had been meddling in Canadian affairs.
Charles Burton, a consultant with CSIS and a former diplomat to China for consular political affairs said it is likely that the campaign is the work of the Chinese government, but did not confirm to Free Tibet whether the CSIS was working on the case or if he had knowledge of it.
“It appears likely that the coordinated campaign against Chemi probably originated in the planning of the United Front Work Department Canada desk, simply because the degree of response simultaneously suggests that it wasn't a spontaneous action by a large group of unconnected individuals,” Burton said, adding that he did not have evidence to prove the allegations.
Burton believes the United Front Work Department, an agency of the ruling Chinese Communist Party,, communicated with Chinese students at the University of Toronto via Chinese social media platform WeChat, asking them to join the attack on Lhamo. Burton believes this was done with approval from the Chinese government.
A Canadian university professor who asked to remain anonymous told Free Tibet that a request like this can be difficult for students with Chinese citizenship to turn down because refusal can mean repercussions for family members at home or a possible damage to their careers when they return to China.
Burton said the campaign was likely an attempt by Beijing to force Lhamo to step down.
“It stands to reason that this activity with regard to a significant leader at the University of Toronto campus would be something that would be of concern to the Chinese government and they would prefer that she not have a leadership role for fear that… would add prestige to the legitimacy of the Tibetan independence cause which she supports,” he told Free Tibet.
On 21 February Canadian MP Garnett Genuis made a similar assessment announcing to the Canadian parliament: “There is indication that some of this intimidation and bullying may have as its source the nefarious inclinations of some diplomats here in Canada.”
“This is a very serious issue in terms of freedom of speech on campus, and also in the way in which foreign diplomats may be engaging in intimidating Canadian students.”
The attack on Lhamo came shortly before a similar incident at McMaster University, in Ontario, where Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush was filmed and shouted at by Chinese students while giving a talk about the mass internment of Muslims by Chinese authorities.
Records obtained by The Washington Post showed that the students had co-ordinated their action with the Chinese embassy.
Lhamo has little doubt she is being attacked in a similar way because of her Tibetan heritage and pro-independence politics.
“It’s just the idea that I’m Tibetan and involved in Tibetan organising spaces. So it’s a threat to them [China] to see that there is someone who will be representing 14,000 students at the very prestigious university,” she told Free Tibet.
She added, “So one of the three campuses being led by a Tibetan… I guess scared them. I hope it did!” She is defiant about any suggestion that what she calls “bullying tactics” will influence her. “Of course it’s not going to,” she said.
However, Burton claims there could be real danger for Lhamo as China becomes increasingly assertive and outspoken abroad, while continuing its drive to unify Tibet with the rest of China.
“It’s possible that there is justification for the concerns over the Tibetan’s [Lhamo’s] safety simply because we’re seeing much more aggressive action by China in other areas, and this would not be as unthinkable today as it would be in earlier years,” he told Free Tibet.
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