A Chinese Purdue student whose harassment reports have garnered national attention recently - especially after Purdue President Mitch Daniels addressed the issue this week - says he wants to keep a low profile.
Zhihao Kong, a doctoral student in civil engineering, said Friday he has been criticizing the Chinese Communist Party since before the pandemic started, but his dissents then did not draw much attention.
He started to become more public during the pandemic, he told the Exponent, publishing a video condemning the CCP and an open letter appealing to students to not join the CCP. The letter circulated, which he said led to verbal intimidation and cyberbullying by his peers.
In May 2020, Kong was invited to a memorial event commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which resulted in the deaths of several hundred people. Kong joined Zoom rehearsals to prepare for the event. After that, he said he received threats to report him to the CCP.
“Two of the students were inciting to report me to the Chinese authorities, specifically they posted the hotline 12339, which is the hotline of the Chinese National Security Agency,” Kong said. “Other students incited other students to report me as well because they said I was violating certain Chinese laws.”
Just before Kong was going to speak at the event, he said, his parents called, asking him to not give the speech and to quit those activities.
And so he did.
If Kong goes back to China now, he said, it’s likely he would be detained by Chinese police. Some dissidents could be jailed for either three to five years, or for a decade. Kong, 26, said he thinks he would be detained for three to five years, based on his activity.
But Kong’s harassment isn’t an isolated incident. He recalled a doctorate student from Florida International University receiving similar treatment from the Chinese Scholars and Students Organization.
The CSSA is in almost every university in the United States. Kong said the organization is popular among Chinese students because it provides information regarding housing and food and for sharing viewpoints.
Kong published his dissents to that group, where he was also harassed. But Kong didn’t go to the police.
“I arrived to the US in August 2019, and that event happened in 2020 in May,” Kong said. “So last year, I was not very familiar with the resources I can refer to.”
His story spreads
ProPublica, an investigative journalism outlet, reached out to Kong and other Chinese students from US universities. A friend of a fellow dissident contacted Kong about the project, and Kong decided to tell his story to spread awareness among unfamiliar audiences.
“For me, it’s not the news,” Kong said of why he decided to take the risk, but “... because I believe the mainstream society in the US may not know such a thing, that some Chinese disagree with other Chinese and they are trying to hurt the other group by reporting to the authorities in China.
“This is always happening (on US campuses).”
The article was published on Nov. 30, and since then Kong has been contacted by Chinese media outlets, whom he refused because he wants the matter to quiet down.
Two weeks later, on Wednesday, Daniels released a campuswide email condemning Kong’s harassers.
Kong said he didn’t know Daniels was to release a statement until an associate dean of students reached out to him the week before, telling him that Daniels planned to do so.
“In that email, if he didn’t refer to that article, not so many people will know this, will know my name,” Kong said.
Online petitions have since been created. The petitions differ in responses regarding the letter, though, with one supporting Daniel’s message, calling for retribution for Kong’s harassers, and the other criticizing the email, calling for a thorough investigation.
Jonathan Schwartz, a student in the College of Science, started a petition on change.org, demanding the expulsion of the students who allegedly harassed Kong. Schwartz is a stranger to Kong, Kong said, but he appreciated the support.
“Kong has had the courage to speak up for freedom; it’s time for lovers of freedom to stand up for Kong,” Schwartz said in the petition. “The identities of Kong’s harassers need to be discovered and President Daniels needs to be held to his word. These students must not be allowed to continue to attend Purdue University.”
Schwartz said in an email sent Saturday he started the petition to show Kong that there are others who supported his actions.
"Speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party took a lot of courage and has undoubtedly been nerve-wracking for him," Schwartz said in the email. "He deserves to know that people stand behind him."
The petition asked for 5,000 signatures, and in its two-day reign, it has garnered more than 5,800 as of Friday afternoon. Many of the responses seemed to be in support of Daniel’s defense of free speech.
“Freedom of speech is both an extremely important part of our Constitution as a nation. As Purdue students, we also agreed to allow the free sharing of ideas even if harmful or offensive to our own beliefs,” user Rein Landsberg posted on the website. “A person living in America should have no fear that what they say could harm their families and anyone who thinks they should has no place (in) this institution or country.”
Schwartz said that he was proud of the petition's rising popularity.
"The fact that there have been thousands of people, many from all over the world, that feel so strongly about defending freedom and standing up for what's right has just shown that freedom only dies when you let it," Schwartz said in the email.
Reactions on campus
Kong said he has also had emailed support from Chinese staff and students. A friend from Hong Kong invited him to dinner and offered to provide supportive resources.
But other co-workers and people he knows on campus have reacted negatively, some going so far as to call him "trash."
"One of the Chinese students sent the letter of Daniels to a Chinese (key opinion leader), so I don't know how the event will develop in China," Kong said.
Others expressed their distaste toward the Chinese Communist Party. “The CCP shouldn’t be allowed to spy on students on our campus,” user Connor Cook posted.
Another petition showed up on change.org by user "ChineseStudent AtPurdue," calling for Daniels to investigate the matter thoroughly and to correct his initial letter.
“It is disturbing to see a school president publicly imply Chinese students are ‘colluding with foreign governments’ without thorough investigations,” the petition states. “The letter calls out a group by their nationality, which is establishing (a) stereotype for Chinese students and impelling a xenophobic atmosphere.”
The petition asked for 1,000 signatures and so far has garnered over 800 as of Friday afternoon. Signers criticized a double standard for American and Chinese patriotism.
“When patriotism is American, it is bold, moral, charismatic and praiseworthy. When patriotism is Chinese, it is dangerous, manipulative and harrassing,” user "Anti McCarthy" posted on the website. “As if Chinese have no right to stand up for their country and are only to accept whatever lies (are) being imposed upon it.”
Others criticized Daniels for fanning the flames of already growing racial tensions against Asians in the United States.
“It is unprofessional and irresponsible for an incumbent president of an academic institute to make a statement against other countries’ internal affairs, especially in such (a) sensitive time of the United States, where its growing domestic conflict is threatening the safety of, not only international students, but also to the students of (the) United States,” user Yichen Wang posted. “A speech such as this will only escalate the already downfalling situation. As a result, the one that will be hurt by the state the most will only be Purdue University itself.”
Kong said in a Reddit post on Thursday that he would not mind an investigation and that he did not believe Daniels’ letter implied all Chinese students were Kong’s harassers.
“If you want to establish ‘China = Harassers,’ that is your freedom of expression, but I don’t believe that letter indicated such assertion,” Kong said in the post.
Kong thanked Schwartz for his support and for the petition, but ultimately did not wish for anyone to be expelled. Kong said he feared a counterattack on his parents if he pushed for expulsion.
“I do not intend to hurt anyone, but the University has its rule that students should follow,” Kong said in the post.
He concluded his post with a message to his Chinese peers.
“At the end I want to say to my fellow Chinese, especially those Pro-CCP students … In my world there’s always a place for you; you can disagree with me; you can even insult me; I will not fire back because that is your freedom of expression,” Kong said in the post. “However, in your world there’s no place for me; you want to eliminate me and even my family from the world just because I disagree with your government or your ideology; this is puzzling, isn’t it?
“Please, my fellow Chinese, first be a human, then a Chinese, finally a CCP member (if you want).”
Kong said he plans to keep a low profile after this, declining to allow the Exponent to take his photo.
“I don’t want my family to be visited by police again,” the softspoken Kong said Friday. “And personally, I don’t want my name to be everywhere.”
And though Kong doesn’t wish expulsion toward those who harassed him, he said he plans to submit his information to the university and let the university take it from there.
“I think it’s good enough that President Daniels voiced out on this issue,” Kong said. “The dissidents like me are very encouraged. So what I think I’ll do next is that I will submit the threats, but I will not push the university to take action.
“It’s their discretion to initiate an investigation or not.”