June 16, 2021

Controversy over Thanksgiving celebration in a Chinese university highlights a growing culture of political snitching

5 min read

Screenshots of a 2019 ad for China’s National Security Day (left) and the group chat that led to the Thanksgiving controversy on the Harbin University of Technology in 2020.
What seemed like a harmless gesture by a dormitory supervisor in a campus of Harbin Institute of Technology, a university located in Heilongjiang province, sparked an uproar on Chinese social media after a student interpreted the act as “Western” propaganda.
In a screenshot of a group chat that went viral, dormitory manager Wang says that, for the occasion of the United States’ holiday of Thanksgiving (celebrated this past Thursday), she was going to distribute chocolates to students. It would be her way to express gratitude to those who had been supportive of the dormitory’s management team, Wang said in the chat.
A few minutes later, a student in the group replied:
宣傳這種西方節日,作為宿舍輔導員,非常不妥,尤其在哈爾濱工業大學,作為官方代表,公開搞洋節慶祝活動,不考慮影響嗎?請生活輔導員和公寓方立刻停止該活動,否則我將向學校有關部門舉報。
The propagation of such Western festivals is very inappropriate for dorm assistants, particularly in Harbin University of Technology. As a representative of the school authorities, haven’t you considered the adverse effects of organizing celebratory activities for Western festivals? Please stop such activities or I will report the incident to the authorities in the school.
Wang promptly apologized. The screenshot of the exchange was shared widely on Chinese social media, in which a discussion over both parties’ behaviour ensued. While some have defended the student, others have accused him of “political bullying” towards a “kind grassroots worker.”
On November 27, in an attempt to cool off tempers, the university administration posted on its official Weibo account a statement supporting both the dormitory supervisor and the student who threatened to report her:
经调查了解,公寓阿姨派发巧克力是出于好心,学生留言提醒阿姨也是出于善意。学校不提倡有宗教色彩的“洋节”进校园,坚决禁止宗教活动进校园。
After an investigation, [we have found that] the dormitory supervisor’s decision to distribute chocolate was an act of kindness, and the student’s words on the chatroom was a friendly reminder. The school will not encourage religious Western festivals on campus and is determined to prohibit religious activities on campus.
The school’s statement received backlash for not defending the supervisor enough. Angry comments poured in the comment section of the school’s Weibo post:
您是怎么做到把威胁举报和出于善意这四个字打等号的?
How can you describe a threat to report as a “friendly reminder”?
阿姨整天为你服务,还要借着洋节给你发礼物表示感谢,但凡有点人性也干不出这白眼狼的举动,官方就别和稀泥了。这和过不过洋节没有关系
The dorm lady serves you all year long and she takes the Western festival as an opportunity to express her thanks. Anyone with a bit of conscience would not do such a wolf-like act. The school authority should not step in to defend the student, this has nothing to do with the Western festival.
礼拜天就是宗教色彩的洋节,你们以后别过??
Sunday is a Western thing, you shouldn’t take a day off, right?
以前我在九公寓的时候,王阿姨就是我们的宿管阿姨,王阿姨人特别好,端午节给我们包粽子煮鸡蛋,中秋节给我们发月饼,元宵节给我们煮汤圆,感恩节发个巧克力怎么了?这个同学就是上纲上线,找存在感,工大怎么出了这么个的东西。
I used to live in the number 9 dorm and auntie Wang was our dorm supervisor. She is such a nice person, gave us rice dumplings on Dragon Boat Festival, mooncakes on Mid-Autumn Festival, sweet rice dumplings on Lantern Festival. What’s wrong with chocolate on Thanksgiving? The student is just finding an occasion to perform his political duty. It’s a shame that the university has this kind of political animals in it.
爱国教育的后患这才刚刚显现
The side-effect of patriotic education is just starting to emerge.
Angry comments were seen on Twitter as well:

哈工大这帮杂碎!感恩节是洋节你们就抵制,你这工科大学里的高数、物理等所有自然学科都是西方的,都是洋的,你们怎么不抵制?你们倒是天天背四书五经呀[发怒] pic.twitter.com/uDLpkTXBj6
— 沉默的力量The power of silence (@2mmbPkM00IJwIUV) November 28, 2020
A bunch of bastards at Harbin University of Technology. You want to boycott western Thanksgiving, look at your cirrcumulum, advanced mathematics, physics, natural science, all are Western, why don’t you boycott these? Why don’t you study the Chinese classics?
Twitter user @XIJlNPING posted a 2010 photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping with Santa Claus to mock the school’s words:

我是哈工大学生,请问该去哪jvbao习近平?😅 pic.twitter.com/Wzthcdwz5g
— 璃洛音尘 (@XIJlNPING) November 27, 2020
I am a student from Harbin University of Technology, anyone pls tell me where to report on Xi Jinping?
Chinese culture as a matter of national security
Under Xi Jinping’s presidency, national security has become central to China’s education system.
In 2013, the government instituted April 15 as “National Security Education Day.” Students are actively encouraged to report dissenting behaviour by teachers and fellow classmates to school authorities. In the past, President Xi said in a speech that ideology is a “matter of life and death” for the survival of China’s Communist Party.
In 2019, the campaign slogan of the national security education day was “there could be spies in your circle.” and it encouraged citizens to report suspicious acts by their acquaintances to the authorities.
The 2020 national security day campaign is called “A comprehensive view on national security”. “Cultural security” is one of the key components in the comprehensive view and hence patriots are supposed to safeguard Chinese culture against Western intrusion.
In recent years, several Chinese universities have banned Christmas decorations, for example. While it is still common in China for people to hold social gatherings during the Christian holiday, some fear that, as restrictions tighten, social acceptance of such celebrations will also diminish — as exemplified by this year’s Thanksgiving debacle.
Indeed, in the social media platform Douban, which is popular with art enthusiasts in China, some users suggested that the dormitory supervisor could be a spy.
@big_ear_cat screen-captured some of the discussions on that platform and posted on Twitter, with a comment:

哈工大官微上说举报的学生是出于善意,评论翻车,难得看到不是护校蛆占领,不少学生学长表示以学校为耻。反而是豆瓣出现这种评论,就快暗示宿管阿姨接受境外反华资金赞助了,真是倒过来了。 pic.twitter.com/4rEVlgNKGb
— 大耳朵猫妹 (@big_ear_cat) November 27, 2020
The [university’s] official post resulted in a backlash. It is good to see that popular opinion is not led by the university authorities, as many students and alumni have spoken out against that shameless act [the student’s threat]. On the other hand, on Douban, I have seen comments suggesting that the dormitory lady was sponsored by foreign anti-China forces. It is such a confusing world.
The comments on the screenshot say:
軍工院校還是很重視關於意識型態這块兒的,而且哈工大在航天這個領域應該是全國最強的學校了,敏感一點不是壞事,總好過學生畢筆了蠢不拉幾的泄密當間諜吧
Universities related to the military industry have to be very careful about ideological matters. Harbin University of Technology is leading in the development of aerospace technology, it is good that they are being sensitive so that their graduates won’t be stupid enough to leak state secrets or act as spies.
我搜了一下費列羅384粒要1125,就感覺怪怪的,很難不讓人多想
I’ve searched the chocolate brand Ferrero, 384 pieces costs RMB 1125 (170 US dollars), the whole thing is very strange and invites speculation.
我覺得大媽本來就很奇怪,國內沒幾個人過感恩節的,她這麼做怎麼總感覺馬上就要傳教了
The old lady acted strange. Very few people would celebrate Thanksgiving in China. Her act gives off the impression that she was about to preach.