Students from China, citing concerns over crime and safety in and around the campus of Syracuse University, are calling on the institution to make an account with WeChat -- a social media platform controlled by the Chinese government. According to Yaqi Kang, a Syracuse University student and president of the campus China Student Development Think Tank, the university would be better able to communicate with Chinese students and their families with a WeChat account. 

In the fall of 2016, Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan -- a student from China -- was murdered at an apartment complex in Dewitt -- a suburb of Syracuse, New York. At 23, Yuan had achieved the status of junior at Syracuse University after arriving in 2011. The murder shook the Chinese community in Syracuse. 

According to the Daily Orange, Syracuse University had begun exploring WeChat and Weibo as possible social media tools. WeChat has almost one billion users, most of whom are in China. Weibo is also a Chinese social media website. However, according to WeChat’s company policy, only entities with a physical address in China with a Chinese citizen serving as account administrator are eligible to set up an account. The university is still seeking a way to obtain an official WeChat account. 

However, the university has begun using WeChat and Weibo to communicate with students and their families in China. The Daily Orange quoted Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz -- interim senior associate vice president for the student experience and dean of students -- that based on feedback from Chinese students, Syracuse University has begun using both WeChat and Weibo to share content in Chinese with current and prospective students. While students from China do not usually check emails, Kantrowitz told the Daily Orange, they do check their WeChat accounts almost constantly. 

According to Kang, Chinese students are not likely to ask the university directly when they face a problem. Instead, she said that they reach out to fellow Chinese. She said that WeChat is used by all age groups in China, and allows parents to know that their children are doing. As for problems Chinese students face, Kang said, “The problems kind of come from a cultural difference … international students have different problems than local students.” 

Kang cited a 2017 survey of 400 Chinese students, of whom 80 percent claimed to have “encountered a dangerous situation” in the city of Syracuse. Many Chinese students live in off-campus housing, prompting the university’s Department of Public Safety to patrol those areas and beef up their presence. Currently, about 10 percent of the student body at Syracuse University are Chinese nationals.

Kang is seeking to create an “off-campus ambassador” position with the university’s Office of Off-Campus and Commuter Services to help students find off-campus housing. She was quoted by the Daily Orange as saying that some Chinese students are reluctant to use a telephone to talk to English-speakers because of their own lack of proficiency in English. Because of their language barrier, Kang said, many choose not to report incidents.  last year to create an “off-campus ambassador” position to help students find better and safer places to live, Kang said.

The China Student Development Think Tank was founded in 2014 by Shuai (Alexander) You at Syracuse University. According to his LinkedIn account, the purpose of CDSTT is as an “intellectual platform for communication, internship, and research project regarding China’s political economic reform, Sino-U.S. relations, and Asian Pacific sustainable development.”

According to You, he raised almost $300,000 to finance research and found CDSTT chapters at other U.S. universities. CDSTT sponsors student interns who work at Chinese government institutions, such as China’s Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, and the Chongyang Institute. You is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Georgetown University.

Webchat has been criticized by civil liberties advocates because of Chinese government censorship. In Chinese, WeChat is used for a wide range of applications that include messaging, money transfers, news searches, and ordering a taxi. However, WeChat prohibits political discussions in a group. Citizen Lab, a research group based in Canada, found evidence that political content triggers censors and is updated as the sensitive material evolves. The group specifically examined how China’s government targeted hundreds of human rights advocates during the so-called “709 Crackdown” that began on July 9, 2015.
 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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