03/28/2022, 14.02
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Chinese lecturer at Milan Polytechnic pushes Taipei student to say Taiwan is China

by John Ai

In a project, Wang put Taiwan as his country of origin. Official Chinese media deny that Chen Zhen had pressured the student and that a Beijing diplomatic official had encouraged the move. China is trying to influence western institutions and hinder academic freedom.


Rome (AsiaNews) - A video that has surfaced on the web in recent days shows a Chinese lecturer at Milan's Politecnico University pressuring a Taiwanese student to change his details of origin in a project to be submitted for study. Chen Zhen (陈蓁), an adjunct professor at Milan Polytechnic's Department of Architecture, was giving an online lecture to a Taiwanese student named Wang and two of his Iranian colleagues, co-authors of the study. He then addressed Wang in Chinese, suggesting that he change the information about his home country in the project from Taiwan to China, because according to him, the island is a Chinese province and not an independent state.

Chen stressed that the conversation was a personal communication and not an "intimidating" act, which would not affect his final vote. Following the lecturer's intervention, in the final version of the project Wang revised his origin from 'Taipei, Taiwan' to 'Taipei, China'. The Milan Polytecnic and Chen have not yet responded to the controversy.

The video is said to have been uploaded by the professor himself, only to be quickly shared on social networks. The footage has sparked controversy and debate in the Chinese blogosphere. Xue Jian, from the Chinese consulate in Osaka, Japan, posted it on Twitter supporting Chen's position. Online comments in Taiwan, however, accused the professor of pressuring the student through his academic authority.

Chen told the Taiwanese student that the European Union, including Italy, recognises Taiwan as part of China. He justified himself by asserting that 'as a Chinese, I have to speak'. In speaking to Wang he also pointed out: 'I hope you do not consider that I am intimidating you as a professor. I want to communicate with you, as a personal exchange'. At the end of the video, Chen is heard saying that 'if we have a big change in the [Taiwan] Strait in the near future, you will have a lot of time to reshape your self-recognition of [national] identity'.

In recent years, China has strengthened military threats aimed at Taiwan. Since 2019, Chinese warplanes have frequently crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, violating a tacit agreement to avoid conflict. After Russia invaded Ukraine, suggestions of attacking the island to bring it back under Beijing's rule grew in China.

Academically, China's long hand has also reached Western universities. In the UK and Australia, tuition fees for international students, especially Chinese, are crucial to universities' finances. In order to avoid provoking Beijing, some professors choose to remain silent on issues considered sensitive, such as the Tiananmen massacre, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Analysts have pointed out that professors and students accept self-censorship for fear of reprisals from Beijing, which curbs academic freedom in Western countries.

Considering the importance of the Chinese market, many academic journals avoid making articles dealing with sensitive topics available to Chinese subscribers. In publications by Taiwanese scholars, they list Taiwan as a province of China.

Since protests against the anti-extradition law broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, there have then been increasing attacks by Chinese students in Western countries against dissidents and activists who support Hong Kong and Taiwan. The attacks are encouraged by the official Chinese media and authorities. The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, overseen by Chinese diplomatic missions, is believed to be the tool for projecting Beijing's power into universities in the West.

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