Last week, students at Brandeis University hosted an online discussion about China's controversial Xinjiang policies, hearing experts discuss the detention, abuse and political indoctrination of more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
But as Uighur attorney and advocate Rayhan Asat appeared before the student group last Friday, her screen was taken over as hackers wrote "fake news" and "liar" on it.
For some participants, the hacking was unwelcome but unsurprising.
James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University and a prominent Xinjiang scholar, told VOA that the group had been warned about a potential interruption beforehand.
He said some letters had been written to the Brandeis president, the faculty adviser of the student who organized the panel, and the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion to shut down the panel.
"The letter said that it was damaging or disturbing to Chinese students to discuss issues going on in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," Millward said.
Still, other experts said it fit with an increase in more organized harassment against topics on American campuses seen as objectionable by the Chinese government.
Chinese Students and Scholars Association
The Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has attracted intense scrutiny and polarized the international community. At least 1 million Uighurs have been detained in a large network of recently constructed camps to undergo reeducation and political indoctrination.
China rejects criticism of the camps, saying they are aimed at eliminating extremism and teaching job skills. China has also criticized scholars, advocates and others who speak out on the Xinjiang issue, and its overseas, Chinese Communist Party-supported citizen groups echo the government's criticism.
VOA has confirmed that the template of the letter sent to Brandeis appears to be the same as one distributed by the school's Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA).
CSSAs are Beijing-supported overseas groups that provide support for visiting students and scholars, but also at times take up political issues on campuses. The Brandeis CSSA issued a statement on WeChat saying that the word "Cultural Genocide" was offensive, that the event was "a one-sided academic event targeting China" and that it would "make all Chinese students feel insecure."
It then provided a template and encouraged Chinese students to write to school management to cancel the event.
Despite the letters, the event went forward as scheduled at 2 p.m. on November 13. But it quickly became apparent that something was happening when someone began playing the Chinese national anthem over one of the speakers. Then the graffiti appeared, targeting Asat.
Asat, a Harvard-educated Uighur attorney, told VOA, "It was awful. I tried not to read. I didn't want that experience to affect me and define me."
Apart from her legal career, Asat is the sister and main advocate for Ekpa Asat, a successful entrepreneur in Xinjiang who disappeared after attending a State Department leadership program in 2016. Rayhan Asat later learned her brother had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination.
So far, no one has taken responsibility for the incident. The Brandeis CSSA and the university's media office did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
Chinese students in Western universities have grown more vocal in opposing teachings and curriculum they object to.
In 2019, a panel discussion on human rights issues was canceled by Columbia University after a Chinese student group threatened to stage a protest outside the venue on campus.
Also last year, when Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush was invited to speak about Xinjiang at Canada's McMaster University, he met with fierce protests from Chinese students.
A report from the Hoover Institute said Chinese Students and Scholars Associations sometimes report on and compromise the academic freedom of other Chinese students and American faculty on American campuses.
"American universities that host events deemed politically offensive by the Chinese Communist Party and government have been subject to increasing pressure, and sometimes even to retaliation, by diplomats in the Chinese Embassy and its six consulates as well as by CSSA branches," the report said.
Another report by the Wilson Center said that over the past two decades, some Chinese diplomats and students have infringed on academic freedom by complaining to universities about invited speakers and events, pressuring and/or offering inducements to those whose work involves content deemed sensitive by the PRC authorities, and retaliating against American universities' cooperative initiatives with PRC partners.
Who gave the 'green light'?
Rayhan Asat argued that what had happened to her was a perfect demonstration of how the Chinese government is able to influence academic freedom on American campuses.
"We don't know whether this was a coordinated event with the Chinese embassies or the Chinese government, but I think there [has] got to be something that gave them the green light to do this," she said. "I don't think that anybody would be in that position to risk their academic life and potential career to do this kind of destruction that would be perceived by any standard as a violation of free speech, a violation of somebody's personal space."
She told VOA that after the event, there were a few Chinese students who came to apologize to her and offered her support.
"I hope the Chinese students who have received Western education can stand with us, rather than aid the Chinese government to silence and oppress us," Rayhan Asat said.
Millward said that although he was saddened by the harassment, he was happy to see lots of Chinese names at the event. "They're a very important audience. They need to know what's going on," he said.