Northwestern faced backlash against a Nov. 21 post on its official Instagram account, which featured a Taiwan independence flag in the “March of Flags,” a kick-off event for International Education Week.
The Tuesday post pictured dozens of international students holding up flags in front of the Rock to kick off International Education Week, among whom a student can be seen holding up a flag that reads “Taiwan Independence” in both Chinese and English. The International Education Week, according to the Instagram post, aims “to bring people together and showcase the amazing diversity of our international community.” In contrast with fewer than 10 comments under previous Instagram posts, this post has already accumulated more than 3,000 responses from students, Northwestern alumni, and other Instagram users. The comment section is filled with some people expressing discomfort with the University making a political statement in public and others supporting the University’s posts for endorsing the freedom of expression.
Even if many students from mainland China have expressed discomfort with the content itself, most considered such an official post to be inappropriate mainly because of the political message it is sending to the public. Sherwin Shen, a first-year Ph.D. student at Northwestern, was among the first group of people who left comments under the post and pointed out the inappropriateness of posting “political slogans.”
“I thought it was inappropriate for a university’s official Instagram account to post a photo that contains political slogans like, in this case, ‘I support Taiwan Independence,’” Shen said. “By posting such a picture, NU’s official Instagram account was claiming its political standpoint on behalf of the school.”
Weinberg sophomore John Ma also considered the University’s actions to be highly inappropriate.
“This post and the response are problematic because apparently the University did not reflect on the purpose of this event and rushed to defend its action by securing the moral high ground using free speech,” Ma said.
Besides criticizing the inappropriateness of the post, some Chinese students, like Medill sophomore Tracy Zhang, considered the University to be “irresponsible” for posting such a controversial image. According to Zhang, she had heard about Chinese students’ degrees from the University of Calgary in Canada being invalidated when the university decided to invite the Dalai Lama, a politically controversial figure in China. Thus, she is disappointed with the school’s lack of consideration of the Chinese international student body and the potential impact this controversial post might have on them.
Zhang’s initial comment on Northwestern’s post reads “the cost of the so-called ‘freedom of speech’ is all the Chinese international students and the validity of their degrees. NU is collecting fortune from the international students, but at the same time have you thought about what consequences the students are facing when they go back with a degree from ‘a university that supports Taiwan independence?’”
Different from many Chinese students, other Instagram users also left comments supporting Northwestern University’s endorsement of freedom of expression and freedom of speech and criticizing the Chinese students for having a lack of respect for the most crucial and fundamental principles in the United States. Some users also challenged Chinese students’ discomfort with the concept of Taiwan independence.
“Why ‘holding a flag saying the independence of Taiwan’ is offensive for people from China? Because you are educated that Taiwan is part of China,” user @hyperbolic001 wrote. “Please, do not forget that we have our own education system and opinions too. Saying that Taiwan is part of China is the same way offensive to us, too.”
Other comments, however, attacked students who voiced discomfort with Northwestern’s Instagram post. Ma said that immediately after he left comments under the post, various users on Instagram started to come at him and he was rather disappointed with the lack of a rational conversation.
“Instead of having a civilized conversation with those who disagreed with me, I was disappointed to see people personally attacking me by calling me ‘silly goose,’ ‘brainwashed’ and ‘anti-free speech’ which is in fact just wrong. A lot of people didn’t carefully read my opinions and challenge my view of the issue itself. They rushed to the conclusion that I am anti-free speech and spreading propaganda for the CCP,” Ma said. “It is really disappointing for someone who expected to have a polite and constructive conversation about the issue itself.”
Facing an outpouring of criticisms, Northwestern University soon updated the Instagram post and reiterated its support for the freedom of expression. In an email to North by Northwestern, University spokesperson and Director of Media Relations Jon Yates said that the University would leave the picture in place.
“We support and encourage free expression and free speech on campus and the sometimes uncomfortable debates that such speech inspires. Universities are a place for rigorous debate and discussion of difficult topics, and this is one of those times. We did not intend to make a political statement by posting this photo,” Yates said. “Having said that, we support our students’ right to free expression and have left the photo in place.”
In response to concerns within the Chinese student community, the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) is working closely with the school to negotiate an acceptable solution for both. In a statement released on its official account on Tuesday on WeChat, a popular social media platform in China, CSSA said it had already reached out to the consulate in Chicago and the Office of International Students and Scholar Services and demanded the school to take down the picture.
Besides asking for the post’s removal, the spokesperson for CSSA said that CSSA also hopes Northwestern can provide more resources to students who have been harassed on social media for their comments on the post.
Thumbnail credit: By User:SKopp - , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=436176.