In a new turn for this years Guild elections, the public account of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) has been sharing the profile pictures of Launch candidates and encouraging students to vote Launch in next week’s Guild elections. For a university club, this is a pretty unorthodox foray into student politics, as they have traditionally remained apolitical during election season.

CSSAs are the official organisation for overseas Chinese and thus by extension, have links with the Embassy and Consulates. Their primary function is to help Chinese students while in Australia, with CSSAs public WeChat plastered with links regarding visas, study arrangements and even a wholesome reminder to stay in touch with your parents.

CSSAs public page is administered by a Facebook account of the same name, on which it has been giving support for Launch candidates. Three Launch candidates have received such support. The posts themselves allude to the involvement of these candidates with CSSA, with captions like “Everyone go support our Clara/Jade”, referencing their involvement as Vice-President and the Social Planning Department of the organisation.

This is not the first year in which CSSA has lent its support to the Launch ticket, posting on WeChat last year that, “As representatives of the Chinese student community, CSSA have collaborated to form a campaign team with Launch for International Student Service Officer”. Indeed, this post also contains photos of Launch 2017 presidential candidate Michael McKenzie wearing a red changshan jacket and attending a CSSA-ECOMS board games event (pictured below).

Furthermore, 2017 also saw the UWA CSSA Instagram account used to support Launch, with photos of candidates campaigning or doing an impromptu dance routine, all with a #voteforlaunch at the bottom.

While the relationship between Launch and CSSA is unclear, it certainly exists. Pelican reached out to both the President of CSSA, as well as the Launch candidates being supported through their social media. All of them apologised and said they were too busy to discuss things. We also reached out to Launch campaign manager Kate Pryce, who said that she didn’t know who was running the CSSA page and was just happy to see clubs supporting Launch candidates. A Chinese student loosely involved with CSSA told me that they could not even get information as to why the organisation was supporting Launch in the first place. The tame version of this argument seems to be that CSSA supports Launch policies because those policies will be good for international students, especially those in the Chinese student community.

However, CSSA’s foray into student politics once again in 2018 speaks to a growing tension in UWA’s Chinese student community over who gets to speak for that community and what role the organisation has to play. Chinese students I spoke to said students are intensely divided over the CSSA. They were quick to mention that the organisation does not represent all Chinese students, with many avoiding it entirely for its perceived bureaucracy and ‘political sensitivity’.

With around 60% of UWA’s international student population coming from China, it’s important to not homogenise the experiences and interests of these students. For the most part, the day-to-day concerns of Chinese students at UWA are almost indistinguishable from those of domestic students – food and drink, educational quality and campus safety.

But politics finds a way, and students who previously had no engagement with the world of stupol have found themselves dragged into debates they have no desire to participate in. Citing events around last year’s election, students described intense arguments in WeChat groups far from the eyes of most students over how to vote in Guild elections and where their allegiances should lie. Indeed, last year’s ISS Director was elected on the back of a wave of support from CSSA, with some students recalling how they received WeChat messages out of the blue about voting in those elections.

At the time of the 2017 election, the case was made that this was an important and exciting chance for Chinese students to have genuine representation on campus, but could only happen if all students banded together to support their candidate. Other students heavily rejected this and felt they shouldn’t have to line up behind one Chinese candidate just because they were supported by CSSA. Those debates aren’t going away. Just this week, Chinese students at the University of Adelaide were threatened on WeChat for being allegedly anti-China during their student union elections. While nothing at UWA has gotten to this level as far as we have seen, this speaks to the broader tension facing many Chinese international students as student elections heat up across the country.

What is most worrying is that this new and significant side of campaigning now occurs on a platform and in a language that electoral regulations have not caught up with. While it may seem like an abstract debate, this discussion has real ramifications. The infamous Dalai Lama motion this year was justified on the basis that it could offend the Chinese student community, but the disconnect between the voice that most prominently gets to represent that community and the actual interests of those students is creating a growing tension. Our discourse is, as good old Jiang Zemin once said, too simple, sometimes naïve.

Cormac Power