Some tweets superimposed Chinese government slogans over images of a cartoon villain who bears a resemblance to President Xi Jinping. Others included Winnie the Pooh, whose likeness is often banned on the Chinese Internet because it is used to refer unflatteringly to Xi.
For “provocation” in some 40 tweets that “denigrat[ed] a national leader’s image,” Luo Daiqing was sentenced
to six months in prison. Luo’s actions, authorities said, “created a negative social impact.”
But Luo didn’t post his comments from China, where Twitter is often blocked by government censors. Instead, he shared them from the United States, where he was studying liberal arts at the University of Minnesota. When he returned home to Wuhan (coincidentally, the epicenter of the coronavirus), he was detained and later sentenced.
The incident raises troubling questions about Chinese influence over students studying abroad. Other students report
having been questioned by security officials about their social-media activity. Fears of surveillance can lead Chinese students overseas to self-censor and avoid criticism of the government.
Luo’s imprisonment, however, is an escalation of Chinese efforts to curtail free speech abroad.
(The Star Tribune reported receiving a message
from Luo’s Minnesota email account that said he had been released and was in Wuhan, which is now under quarantine.) In a statement
, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said, “This is what ruthless and paranoid totalitarianism looks like.” It seems certain that the incident will have a further chilling effect on Chinese students studying in the U.S. and elsewhere.
At the same time, it’s fair to ask what role American universities ought to play.
A university spokesman told the Star Tribune that Minnesota wasn’t commenting on Luo’s case. On Twitter
, Kris Olds, a University of Wisconsin professor and global education expert, laid out a series of issues, including what legal responsibilities colleges have to students in situations like Luo’s, how they ought to respond to authoritarian governments’ increasing digital reach, and whether they ought to advise students from such countries about the phenomenon.