Taiwanese and Hong Kong students were left feeling “shocked”, “angry”, and “disappointed” after a series of posts made by the SU International Students’ Officer (ISO) over the Chinese social media platform WeChat, which potentially led to worsening tensions on campus.
Shared with Forge Press in late November 2019, we understand that the posts had been circulating online since August 2019. The screenshotted posts from Sissi Li’s personal account found their way into a Taiwanese group chat of more than 300 students, and were soon picked up by Hong Kong and Chinese student communities in Sheffield.
Sissi Li admitted that the WeChat posts were her own. She has since apologised for any distress caused by her posts, recognising that the comments she made as an elected official of the Students’ Union were inappropriate.
Taiwanese and Hong Kong representatives argue that Sissi was defending the contentious ‘one China’ principle – and have expressed concerns that their community is not being faithfully represented by the ISO.
In independent translations provided to Forge Press, one post expressed annoyance over the ‘fake reports by the foreign media’ that have been critical of Beijing’s influence in Taiwan and Hong Kong over the past year, adding that: ‘foreign citizens of some regions are able to post nonsense that call[s] ‘white’ ‘black’ on some influential social media platforms.”
Hong Kong student representatives argue that the posts potentially reinforce Beijing’s framing of the Hong Kong protests as a separatist movement opposed to Chinese sovereignty – despite protesters calling for the protection of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.
Another post criticised the way in which university registration documents for foundation, undergraduate, and language courses list ‘China’, ‘Hong Kong’, and ‘Taiwan’ as separate nationalities.
Referencing the University language classes, the posts encourage Chinese nationals to ‘actively report’ this ‘situation to officials’, adding that: ‘I hope you could contact me when you find such a low-level mistake and need any help. We can help him/her correct it together.’
Hong Kong and Taiwanese student representatives have been alarmed by the posts, alleging that the ISO was encouraging the University to adopt the ‘one China’ principle in registration forms, leading China, Taiwan and Hong Kong being grouped into a singular Chinese nationality option.
Bringing attention to the Chinese noun ‘官方’ in the screenshot, these students argue that the use of ‘官方’ (official) is a generally accepted definition of government official. Coupled with the use of the Chinese flag emoji after that word, representatives of Hong Kong and Taiwanese students believe that the ISO was encouraging mainland Chinese students to report those who chose to identify as ‘Taiwanese’ or ‘Hong Kongese’ on official university forms to Chinese government officials.
They allege that the ISO’s focus on registration forms is used as one of many examples in which Chinese sovereignty could supposedly be questioned at the University. They add that even if they identify openly as ‘Taiwanese’ or ‘Hong Konger’ in language classes, they are at risk of being reported.
Sissi Li has denied allegations that she was encouraging minority ethnic Chinese students at the University to be reported to Chinese officials. She has, however, admitted to encouraging Chinese nationals to ‘report to the University any examples of where the organisation lists China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan separately’ on official forms.
This has raised concerns that the ISO was attempting to push the University into grouping these nationalities together into a singular nationality option on registration forms. Student representatives argue that this could deny minority ethnic groups the ability to identify with the nationality they recognised as their own when many Taiwanese and some Hong Kong students do not identify as Chinese.
These posts came to light after a tumultuous few months on campus for international student groups. October saw the arrest and suspension of a mainland Chinese student after Hong Kong students, raising awareness of the pro-democracy movement in Sheffield city centre, were disrupted by over 150 mainland Chinese students.
Attending an awareness session organised by Hong Kong students in the city, Forge Press was shown an article published on the messaging platform Weixin (China’s domestic version of WeChat) aimed at exposing the identities of Hong Kong students involved in the city centre clash a couple of days before hand. The article praised the attempts of mainland Chinese students and encouraged them to share the ‘exposure material’ among the rest of Sheffield’s Chinese community.
Early December saw the Students’ Union Council pass a policy supporting the Hong Kong democracy movement, mandating the Students’ Union to defend the security and freedom of speech of Hong Kong students on campus. The policy was not, however, exempt from controversy. One Taiwanese student was ejected from the meeting, and all mainland Chinese students sat in the observer block staged a walkout once the policy was passed.
Taiwanese and Hong Kong student communities speaking to Forge Press have expressed anger and disappointment at Sissi’s posts. They believe that the posts have compromised their safety on campus and in the city as a whole.
Hannah*, a Taiwanese student, stated that during the Christmas holiday she “felt really nervous while transferring my flight in Beijing […] because [Sissi] said she would report us to the authorities.” She added that she was excited by Sissi becoming an SU Officer, but that the ISOs posts lead to Chinese students becoming more offensive to her community on campus.
Becca felt the same, that advocating the ‘one China’ principle on campus, and the idea of being reported to government authorities was “an act of suppressing freedom of speech”, adding that it was “utterly wrong and sad to see that the Taiwanese students are also being oppressed for acknowledging their own ethnic identity.”
As a Hong Kong student, Becca believes that the WeChat posts inflamed those tensions over the autumn semester, stating that: “I, an international student myself, experienced it first hand when I was threatened for my political stance over Hong Kong.”
Forge Press spoke to June, a student who felt that Sissi was not fulfilling her role as the elected ISO. Asked whether the posts had impacted her directly, she explained that: “I was very worried about my personal safety since photos of me and my name were being posted on social media […] I couldn’t leave my room and be on the street on my own for a couple of weeks, especially when the SU policy on Hong Kong democracy was ongoing. [I was worried] that I may be recognised.”
June expressed concerns that Officer and Sheffield Students’ Union Council candidates could use their position to monitor students of other nations; in the instance of the screenshots, those who would speak out against the Chinese Communist Party. She went on to explain that:
“We all have the right to know about this matter. Since the Officer Election will be held soon, the Students’ Union should also need to emphasise to candidates that the future officers serve every international student, and not just their own nationality.”
In a statement from the ISO, Sissi said that: “It is an honour to be elected International Students’ Officer in an organisation with such a brilliant global community. My role is to support and represent the University’s international student population, and I value all our international students, who can speak to me on any matters important to them.
“It can be difficult navigating so many different political opinions, and I’m sorry if anyone who has seen these messages was concerned. I want to let all international students at the University of Sheffield know that I am committed to representing you all – no matter where you are from or what you believe. I’m excited for the opportunities to improve international student experience over the coming months.”
A statement from the SU President Jake Verity praised the hard work of the ISO was doing in office, that the posts did not constitute misconduct in office, adding that: “This doesn’t lessen its significance, but considers the likelihood of differing political opinions between an elected officer from the People’s Republic of China and other international students.”
If you have any concerns about the issues raised in this article, the Student Advice Centre can be reached on 0114 2228660, and Nightline can be reached on 0114 222 8787.
- Names of students have been changed, so as to keep their identity anonymous and to protect their welfare and security.