Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation and free-speech advocates voiced support Thursday for a University of Minnesota student sentenced to prison in China for tweets he made while studying in the United States.
Meanwhile, the university held off on taking a stance on the student’s situation, saying officials are still trying to learn more about it. Thursday evening, the Star Tribune received a note from Luo Daiqing’s university e-mail address saying he had indeed been sentenced to six months in prison for tweets seen as attacking the Chinese government but that he has since been released and staying in his hometown of Wuhan, which, coincidentally, is the subject of a travel ban due to the presence of coronavirus.
The news site Axios reported Wednesday that Luo was detained last summer and sentenced in November because of tweeting cartoon images perceived as lampooning Chinese President Xi Jinping. The report cited Chinese court documents alleging that he tweeted more than 40 comments the previous fall “denigrating a national leader’s image and indecent pictures.”
Luo’s Twitter account, which was still active Wednesday, has been deactivated.
On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Ilhan Omar, all Minnesota Democrats, called on the Chinese government to release Luo. Smith said she was concerned about Luo’s safety and had contacted the U.S. State Department about what she described as an “extremely troubling situation.” Klobuchar called Luo’s treatment “unacceptable” and said her office would push for his release.
In her statement, Omar said, “This is what ruthless totalitarianism looks like. Luo Daiqing made these posts while he was in the U.S. — attending college in my district. Here in the United States, we believe in free speech.”
More than 3,100 students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan attend the U’s campuses. They account for 45% of the university’s international student body, making them a significant campus constituency.
The U had so far largely avoided controversies faced by other American universities about how to balance their important relationships with China with a more restrictive academic and social climate in that country.
University spokesman Jake Ricker confirmed there was a first-year student at the U’s College of Liberal Arts during the 2018-2019 academic year named Luo Daiqing. He is no longer enrolled, Ricker said, saying that is why Luo is not listed in this year’s student directory. The university was unable to share additional information about him because of federal privacy law.
Ricker said the university learned of Luo’s apparent arrest from the Axios report. He said the U is not immediately planning to issue a public statement on the case or take other steps to address the situation.
“I am honestly not sure what a public university can do regarding another country’s legal system,” he said.
Sarah McLaughlin, of the campus free-speech advocacy group FIRE, said the U was in a “tough spot,” with limited options to help its student in China. Still, she said the university should speak out and reach out to elected leaders.
She said universities more generally need to strike an often delicate balance between signaling that they value international students’ voices and alerting them about consequences they might face in their home countries because of free-expression restrictions.
On Thursday, the Washington, D.C., based-PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, called Luo’s arrest the latest example of stepped-up censorship by Chinese authorities that now extends to speech by Chinese citizens overseas.
“It is obvious that China is attempting to send a signal with Luo Daiqing’s conviction — they are telling overseas Chinese citizens that there is no place where they are free from state censorship and surveillance,” said James Tager, PEN America deputy director. “Luo’s case has implications for every Chinese student studying abroad, and for every academic institution that seeks to safeguard its students’ freedom of speech.”
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., had also called for Luo’s release, calling his arrest evidence of “ruthless and paranoid totalitarianism.” He also urged the U to give him a full scholarship.
The Minnesota Student Association and two campus organizations representing Chinese students did not respond to requests for comment. Asked what obligations or options the university might have to address Luo’s situation, Ken Powell, chairman of the U’s governing board, said there is little he could say beyond what has been reported in the media.
Star Tribune reporter Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.