Liu Tianyu, a Chinese student studying at Buffalo University in the United States, has always valued independent thought. But he was subjected to a torrent of online abuse including death threats after he posted to the social media platform WeChat in support of Hong Kong, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is waging all-out war on public dissent and political opposition. Liu spoke to RFA’s Mandarin Service about his encounter with online CCP supporters known as the Little Pinks:
RFA: So can you tell us what happened?
Liu Tianyu: Back in early October 2019, I posted a photo in support of the Hong Kong protest movement to WeChat Moments. I don’t know which of my classmates saw it or how the word spread, but by Nov. 20, I was getting hundreds of insults and threats in the [official] WeChat group [of the CCP-backed Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association, University of Buffalo chapter].”
The most serious were from two men who threatened me with death. One said that he would kill me within the next three days and hold onto my ashes. The other warned me to be careful what I said and posted a photo of himself licking a knife, essentially threatening to kill me. That same day, I got in touch with the university’s International Student Services, and they called the police. I went to the police station to give a statement the same day.
RFA: A lot of people might have chosen to keep quiet when faced with such a situation. What made you report it to the police?
Liu Tianyu: Three possible courses of action flashed through my mind at the time. One was to keep quiet and keep a low profile. Another was to hit back verbally. The third was to use the law. Now I’m in the U.S., I am somewhat removed from the persecution of the [CCP] system, and I feel a bit safer. If we don’t speak out [here], then people back home will be even more intimidated, and the whole country will fall silent.
I felt that I had an obligation to speak out, and I had no wish to hit back at them. It wasn’t just about me. This needed to come to the attention of the rest of the world.
Hong Kong protesters, and anyone who supports the Hong Kong protest movement are regarded as thugs in China. The rest of the world needs to decide for itself who the thugs are, and who are the peaceful protesters.
RFA: Were you frightened to get so much abuse and even threats from such a large number of people? What impact did it have on you?
Liu Tianyu: This incident has had a massive impact on my life. How did photos I posted to my private followers get leaked? I suspect that there are people who monitor the activity of all of the members of the official WeChat group of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Buffalo University. They click through to see what they are saying to their followers, and to spy on what they are saying and what they are following.
It was scary, but it was more of a surprise. I didn’t expect these people to come out with such things, and I didn’t know any of these people beforehand. Yet they were willing to issue death threats over a few words from me, because of some difference in our opinions … I didn’t expect these students to behave in such a frenzied way.
RFA: What happened after the school called the police?
Liu Tianyu: I reported it to the police on Nov. 20, 2019. The police completed their investigation at the end of March last year. They concluded that there wasn’t enough to prosecute, and referred the case to the Student Conduct and Advocacy Office at the university. They issued penalties before the end of last spring semester. I received notice that the persons involved had been punished in January.
RFA: Were you disappointed with that outcome?
Liu Tianyu: My request was that the person involved would be suspended, but they said they wouldn’t do that because it was their first offense, and that no physical violence or injury had occurred. So they would allow the person to remain at the school on notice. This seemed like a reasonable view, so I accept it. Mostly, I am very grateful to the teachers and staff in the student office, who took care of me in many ways. I felt this was a strong point of American society.
RFA: What about other students who sent abusive messages? Do you want them to be held accountable?
Liu Tianyu: Hundreds of people were involved in this incident, at least. I only ever wanted the most serious punishment for the worst offenders. I don’t think we can hold the others accountable if they didn’t do anything particularly serious. They are all brainwashed: which is pathetic and hateful at the same time. I still hope that what I did will be a warning and a lesson to them. I was born and raised in mainland China for three decades, so I still have some fellow feeling for them. I just hope they can do better.
RFA: Why are the Little Pinks getting more violent, do you think?
Liu Tianyu: The difference between the way the Little Pinks think and way people who have received a normal education in civilized countries is that they …. won’t fully enjoy the freedom of speech granted to us under the U.S. Constitution. They don’t want to allow others to talk either: they want to shut them up. This all stems from the education system [in China], which suppresses many people’s right to speak. Now they are exporting it to the U.S.
I oppose all violence, including violence perpetrated by authoritarian regimes on their own people. I hate the suppression of peaceful protest and the stifling of freedom of speech. The main reason that I posted [the Hong Kong protest] photo was that I wanted people who follow me to pay attention to this issue. But I also welcome discussion, just not insults and death threats. Even if we don’t agree, we can still talk to each other properly.
RFA: Do you think they will learn from this?
Liu Tianyu: It’s hard to say. It is possible that the current class of students may learn from it, but every year, many more Chinese students will go to Buffalo University, all of whom have had the same brainwashing during their education in China. So unless things change back home, I’m not very optimistic. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon … so I want everyone to know this. If this happens to you, you can use the law to protect yourself. U.S. law supports freedom of speech and bans violence, incitement to violence, harm to others as well as threats of harm to others. Students who want to express their opinions freely, but who wind up excluded and threatened by their classmates, can use my methods to protect themselves. This is why I want to tell everyone what happened to me.
Reported by Han Jie for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.