A Somerville teacher and organizer behind the protests speaks out.
As a Somerville resident and a Tibetan whose parents were forced to escape China’s destruction of Tibet, I was appalled to learn, in 2018, that the long, oppressive arm of the Chinese government had found a home in Somerville and Medford. I am referring to the Confucius Institute at Tufts University which, as of March 17, now appears to be shutting down, due to mounting public pressure.
For those who do not know, the Confucius Institute is a program sponsored by the People’s Republic of China, a one-party totalitarian state, that is known for vast human rights violations both at home and abroad. Though ostensibly a Chinese culture and language program, CIs are a stated part of the Chinese government’s global soft power strategy. In setting this program up in 2004, Beijing hoped to create a more positive image of the People’s Republic of China around the world and gain direct access to influence students, youth, and academic institutions abroad. Controlled directly by a Chinese government agency in Beijing, CIs have a record of promoting propaganda and censorship and have been exposed for trying to shut down discussions of controversial topics such as China’s human rights record, Taiwan’s independence, and issues relating to Tibet, at universities and schools around the world.
It is no secret that the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). At least one million, and up to two million, Ugyhur people and other Turkic Muslims are currently being held in internment camps. There are horrific testimonies and reports of systematic rape, torture, and even forced sterilizations taking place in the camps. The Canadian and Dutch Parliaments have recently designated these atrocities as “genocide,” and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently confirmed this as the U.S. government’s official position.
The CCP is also responsible for the brutal repression of Tibet, my homeland. Since 2009, more than 155 Tibetans have self-immolated in desperate protest of the CCP’s draconian policies. In January of this year, a young monk named Tenzin Nyima died after being tortured by Chinese authorities. His crime? Peacefully demonstrating for Tibet’s independence. He was only 19 years old. And just last month, in its annual ranking on access to civil and political rights in the world, Freedom House listed Tibet as the number one least free place on earth, tied with Syria.
Needless to say, former and current Tufts students, local residents, and elected officials, including Congressman Seth Moulton, have been deeply concerned about and opposing the presence of the Confucius Institute at Tufts for many years. By allowing the Confucius Institute to operate, Tufts is promoting the presence of the CCP not just on campus but in our community. For many of us, it has been painful to see a partnership between an American university and a foreign authoritarian government in our own neighborhood. Beyond the important values we see undermined by Tufts’ hosting the Confucius Institute like protecting academic freedom and respecting basic human rights around the world, we have to ask: How can we, as students and residents, feel safe with an arm of the Chinese government in our backyards? For those of us who are Tibetan, Uyghur, Hong Kong and Chinese citizens—we have experienced deep and ongoing trauma as a result of the repression inflicted upon us and our people by the Chinese government. To say that we expect more understanding of our suffering and our fundamental concerns about the Confucius Institute from such an important and prestigious university is an understatement.
Since 2014, 69 Confucius Institutes in the United States have closed down due to the recognition that they are, ultimately, a political tool of the Chinese government and, as such, unacceptable to operate in American universities and schools. If the Tufts closure goes ahead as planned, it would be the 70th. Another CI that closed due to a grassroots campaign by community members, students and alumni in 2019 was UMass Boston—one of the oldest Confucius Institutes in the country at. Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in Cambridge also shut down its Confucius Classroom after Tibetan students, Tibetan alumni, and their parents learned about the Chinese government connection. Sadly, though Tufts also recognized the risks and realities of Chinese government influence inherent in the Confucius Institute program, it decided, in September 2019, not to end its partnership after a lengthy investigation and instead moved to tighten up contractual obligations and oversight. We believe this was a grave mistake, and that’s why we have been protesting. To me, it has been clear from the start—the only remedy for this situation, and especially considering the horrific nature of China’s ongoing crimes against humanity, is for Tufts to recognize there is no technical fix to this fundamentally flawed program and shut it down.
I have been living in Somerville since the day I moved to this country in 1996. I went to public school here. Today, I am an elementary teacher in the district. I love Somerville. And I cannot accept Tufts, or any institution in this community, quietly opening its arms to a totalitarian regime. That’s why I helped form a coalition of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, and Chinese people to protest to shut down the Confucius Institute at Tufts University. We have been holding weekly protests outside the Tufts Confucius Institute and Tufts President Anthony Monaco’s home for the last 13 weeks. We were ready to go for as long as it took until Tufts terminated the contract. And on top of our physical protest, we mobilized online support. On Thursday March 11, over 600 individuals sent emails to Anthony Monaco demanding the termination of the Confucius Institute. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn received the emails as well.
Numerous elected officials from both cities gave us their support, including Somerville School Committee Member Sarah Phillips; Somerville City Councilors Ben Ewen-Campen and Will Mbah; Medford City Councilors Zac Bears, Adam Knight, Michael Marks, and Nicole Morell; and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven. They helped us make it clear that this is not solely just a Tufts problem. It is a Somerville problem and a Medford problem. This seemed to be the right combination of grassroots and public pressure because, last week, Tufts announced it would not renew its contract with the Confucius Institute when it expires in September of this year. And while they went to great lengths to avoid any mention of our campaign, we know that our efforts made this possible.
Going forward, I urge Tufts and all educational institutions to be aware that this kind of partnership with the Chinese government is simply not acceptable for a host of important reasons—including the harm they inflict on our communities and the refugees like my family, who have escaped Chinese government repression in our homelands. There are also considerations about the safety and security of Chinese foreign students and visiting faculty when attending a school that allows the Chinese state a presence on campus. There are resources available to better understand the threats posed to academic institutions by the Chinese government and I strongly recommend Human Rights Watch’s 12-Point Code of Conduct to Help Educational Institutions Respond.
Olo Bayul is a 2nd grade teacher in the Somerville Public Schools. He is also a Tibetan activist and organizer.
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