A group of international Chinese students from Cornell University staged a walkout and allegedly booed an Uyghur student during a public service career talk last week.
The walkout occurred after Fulbright scholar Rizwangul NurMuhammad spoke during the question-and-answer portion of a talk that was part of a weekly speaker series for the students of Cornell University’s Master in Public Administration program on Thursday.
NurMuhammad asked guest speaker Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) about why the U.S. and the international community have spoken up against Russia for invading Ukraine yet remain quiet on the issue of the alleged genocide of the Uyghurs, the most persecuted ethnic minority in China.
NurMuhammad said that her brother, Mewlan, was arrested in 2017 during the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The student also said that she has not been able to speak to her brother since his detention.
As Slotkin tried responding to NurMuhammad’s question, around 40 Chinese students reportedly walked out, prompting a university staff member to inform the Democrat representative, who joined the event via a video link, about their exit. “We have a lot of the Chinese students exiting the room, congresswoman, just to let you know,” the staff member can be heard saying in a video shared with The Independent.
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“I feel for you and I’m sorry that you’re going through that and I’m sorry that the students just felt the need to leave,” Slotkin said to NurMuhammad.
“There was audible booing and jeering from the Chinese students partway through her question, and during the answer, they started to get up and just walked out of the room,” Pedro Fernandez, a Cornell University student who attended the event, told Axios.
Around 88 students reportedly signed an email that was sent to Cornell Institute of Public Affairs faculty members the following day, explaining that the walkout was due to the “extremely hostile” environment the talk’s Chinese attendees were put in. “At that moment, we were not sitting in a classroom; we were crucified in a courtroom for crimes that we did not commit,” they wrote.
Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Director Professor Matt Hall responded with a faculty-wide email, writing: “The human rights abuses of the Uyghur people are valuable points of discussion and critical to promoting open dialogue. At the same time, we must also respect that walkouts are a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval.”
Following the incident, NurMuhammad told The Independent that the walkout brought about a “dehumanizing” experience. She claimed that the email Hall sent showed “they were trying to shift the focus of what happened. They have denied my existence, literally.”
“My brother has been arbitrarily for five years, my people are suffering genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” NurMuhammad added. “When they walked out, the signal they gave me is that your personal suffering is not welcome to be shared in this space. They’re giving me this signal that you have to be silent. This stress and this worry has [sic] accumulated for too long.”
In a follow-up email, Hall and the Dean of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, Colleen Barry, said the events that transpired last week “spurred divisive discourse and engaged us in serious conversation related to how best to speak up in the face of genocide and human rights atrocities against the Uyghur people.”
“At the same time, they remind us how harmful it is when conversation devolves into derogatory anti-Asian expression,” the statement continued.
Cornell University staff reportedly reached out to NurMuhammad privately, but she noted that their response to the incident was unsatisfactory, and she wants them to publicly apologize.
“You’re talking about anti-Asian? What are you talking about? I’m Asian too. There is very little understanding of what I’m going through. I felt alone,” she said.
A vocal critic of the Chinese government since her brother’s forced detention, NurMuhammad acquired New Zealand citizenship after moving there from Xinjiang in 2010. She moved to the U.S. in 2021 after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to attend Cornell University.