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I am currently an undergraduate student in my last year at a Canadian university. Today, I gave a presentation about anti-censorship technology being developed at my institution. We were required to ask questions to the audience at the end of the presentation and one of mine was a multiple choice question that asked where the technology would not work, with answers that included "The People's Republic of China" and "Republic of China" among others.

One of the students in the class who grew up in China asked a leading question about why I had two options, to which I responded: "there are two countries that call themselves China". He became extremely aggressive at that point and stated that I shouldn't be pushing my political beliefs on the class (the class was about technology and business), and yelled a standard Chinese political line about a united China in the middle of class. In the moment, I quickly just apologized that he was offended by it and somehow got the presentation back on track.

I spoke with the professor later in the day and he said the student came to him with a list of demands, which included, among other things, a public apology in class, alteration of my slide deck before posting it to the discussion board, and a meeting between him, the professor, and I.

I believe I am in the right when it comes to this topic and during my discussion with my professor, he agreed that students have a right to freedom of speech. He left it to me to decide what actions on the demands list, if any, I would be willing to do.

I feel some remorse, as I didn't think that the question would be taken so violently by a member of the audience, but the level of intensity in my classmate is extreme. He stared at me consistently for the rest of class and, to be honest, made me somewhat uncomfortable.

I agreed to the meeting to start, but what else should I do? Disciplinary actions, like legal trials, tend to not always work out for the person who is in the right - there are many innocent people in jail. I want to stand up for freedom of speech, but don't want to be crucified under a formal review because one of the reviewers may have also been indoctrinated by growing up in China and share the same views. I'm sure just like anything, if you dig hard enough, you can find something to get me on if the administration wanted to.

The irony that I see in this whole presentation is that it was about anti-censorship, and my classmate wants me to censor myself and only accept his version of truth - which is actually a lie.

  • I don't know how these processes tend to go, but since you seem to be surprised by this student's reaction, I think the first thing you should do is read more about the issue. Knowing just how massive a hot button it is will help you a) figure out where the student is coming from, and b) decide how important fighting about it is to you. – Anyon Jun 21 '18 at 19:29
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    I sincerely doubt a Canadian university is going to do anything to you at all. I wouldn't do any of his "demands." You don't answer to him. I also would not involve myself in an argument over Taiwanese sovereignty during finals. Just ignore him. – Azor Ahai Jun 21 '18 at 20:10
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    This isn't really an answer to your current problem, but in the future it might be easiest to put something like "Taiwan/Republic of China." This allows you to acknowledge that Taiwan does indeed call itself the Republic of China while also pointing out what it is to those who don't know that Taiwan calls itself that (many Americans don't, at least). It also gives you a bit of plausible deniability if Mainland Chinese students complain, because you're just listing the two names a particular region is most well-known by rather than committing solely to the one that the PRC doesn't like. – Sparksbet Jun 21 '18 at 20:53
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    I was aware of the debate going on over sovereignty, but did not expect a country all the way around the world to have students that would violently react to an opposite viewpoint. I referred to every contentious country by its full name, I called North Korea "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea" as well, but left undisputed countries like Russia as just "Russia". I think calling a people/nation by their preferred name is the most respectful thing to do. I don't call people Steve who tell me their name is Dave. – Mike Jun 21 '18 at 21:44
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    I am a Chinese citizen, and I HATE this kind of people who force their opinion on others (and not like your opinion is unethical or anything). After all, this isn't China where you can have the government censor anything you don't like! Personally, I do support a united China, but I won't force everyone to believe the same. Not to mention that what you did is perfectly reasonable (the Republic of China exists, whether they like it or not). Please, by all means ignore him. If he is disrupting class, make him "shut up". I apologize on behalf of him! – xuq01 Jun 22 '18 at 7:07
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You are, it appears, being bullied. You will encounter people with strong, even irrational feelings irrelevant to you and your work with some regularity over your career. Engaging is seldom useful. You are not responsible for his demands, and this issue is not one in which it appears you want to involve yourself. In your coming meeting, engage as little as possible with his narrative. Bring all topics back to how you are being made uncomfortable, and how you wish to be left alone. You are correct in your statement, but don't seek to assert that. Just let this angry individual exit your life without engaging with his angry demands. If he escalates, your department will certainly help you; use that.

  • @mike, Let us know how it all turns out. – Industrademic Jun 26 '18 at 15:31
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Canada is a country where people generally hold free speech in very high regard. Even in the extremely unlikely event that the student will be successful in his efforts to get you disciplined by your university, I find it impossible to imagine that you could not with very little effort (say, a couple of Facebook posts complaining about your mistreatment) turn this into a huge scandal that would get the decision overturned due to overwhelming public pressure. I agree with others’ assessment that you have done nothing wrong and are being bullied into expressing speech you do not agree with and suppressing your own fully legitimate speech and thoughts.

With that said, in my opinion none of us has the moral right to tell you what to do, since you alone will have to bear the consequences of your decision. At the very least, the thought of having someone who disapproves of you so intensely would make anyone uncomfortable, and could be a strong motivating factor in the direction of deciding to try to make amends and cave into their demands, unreasonable though they may be. No one wants to have enemies. So you’ll just have to decide on your own how far you’re willing to go with this.

Finally, I must say I am disappointed with your professor. It would be more appropriate for him to tell the other student very firmly and clearly that he has no business pursuing any action against you, and refuse to discuss the matter further or even communicate to you any of the student’s “demands”. This is not exemplary behavior for an educator.

To be clear, my answer is based on general principles of free speech and has nothing to do with any particular opinions I may or may not hold regarding China and/or Taiwan.

  • When he "yelled a standard Chinese political line about a united China in the middle of class" the professor should have intervened. However, it's not always easy to decide the right kind of reaction immediately. In any case, the incident should be/have been addressed during the next lecture. – Roland Jun 22 '18 at 7:42
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    @Roland I’m not faulting the professor for not intervening in the moment. But I am definitely faulting the professor for “He left it to me to decide what actions on the demands list, if any, I would be willing to do.” The professor should stand up for his students’ right to express their (legitimate, non-hateful) speech in his class. By even agreeing to communicate the list of demands to OP and have a discussion about them, he is lending those demands a perceived legitimacy they don’t have, and to some extent enabling the other student’s bullying. – Dan Romik Jun 22 '18 at 7:55
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The irony that I see in this whole presentation is that it was about anti-censorship, and my classmate wants me to censor myself and only accept his version of truth - which is actually a lie.

That's one, but there's also a lot of irony in

He ... stated that I shouldn't be pushing my political beliefs on the class

Since you've agreed to the meeting, you should think through what you aim to get out of it. Specifically: what points do you want to make? What concessions do you want the other party to make, and what concessions are you willing to make? How important to you is reconciliation with the other party?

If you rank reconciliation highly, then unless there are technical reasons why the answer to the question differs for the PRC and the RoC it seems that you might be able to concede the slide modification. You might even choose to concede the apology, conditional on the other party also making a public apology.

If you're willing to burn bridges, you could choose to go on the offensive and insist on an apology (in the meeting, not necessarily in public) before you're willing to discuss anything else, with a fallback plan of filing a grievance yourself if you don't receive it. Or you could lay a trap by clarifying that the other party thinks that pushing political beliefs in the lecture theatre requires a public apology, and then when he confirms this asking when he intends to make it - although be warned that your professor might not be amused.

Either way, if you think that a grievance in either direction is likely, it would be worth your while to find what relevant written policies you can, read them carefully, and take a copy to the meeting.

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