Duke University Student Threatened After Protest
Freshman Who Tried Reconcile Protestors Is Targeted
On the day the Olympic torch was carried through San Francisco last week, Grace Wang, a Chinese freshman at Duke University, came out of her dining hall to find a handful of students gathered for a pro-Tibet vigil facing off with a much larger pro-China counterdemonstration.
Wang, who had friends on both sides, tried to get the two groups to talk, participants said. She began traversing what she called “the middle ground,” asking the groups’ leaders to meet and making bargains. She said she agreed to write “Free Tibet, Save Tibet” on one student’s back only if he would speak with pro-Chinese demonstrators. She pleaded and lectured. In one photo, she is walking toward a phalanx of Chinese flags and banners, her arms overhead in a “timeout” T.
But the would-be referee went unheeded. With Chinese anger stoked by disruption of the Olympic torch relays and criticism of government policy toward Tibet, what was once a favorite campus cause — the Dalai Lama’s people — had become a dangerous flash point, as Wang was soon to find out.
The next day, a photo appeared on an Internet forum for Chinese students with a photo of Wang and the words “traitor to your country” emblazoned in Chinese across her forehead. Wang’s Chinese name, identification number and contact information were posted, along with directions to her parents’ apartment in Qingdao, a Chinese port city.
Salted with ugly rumors and manipulated photographs, the story of the young woman who was said to have taken sides with Tibet spread through China’s most popular Web sites, at each stop generating hundreds or thousands of raging, derogatory posts, some even suggesting that Wang — a slight, rosy 20-year-old — be burned in oil. Someone posted a photo of what was purported to be a bucket of feces emptied on the doorstep of her parents, who had gone into hiding.
“If you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces,” one person wrote in an e-mail message to Wang. “Call the human flesh search engines!” another threatened, using an Internet phrase that implies physical, as opposed to virtual, action.
In an interview on Wednesday, Wang said she had been needlessly vilified.
“If traitors are people who want to harm China, then I’m not part of it,” she said. “Those people who attack me so severely were the ones who hurt China’s image even more.”
She added: “They don’t know what they mean by ‘loving China.’ It’s not depriving others of their right to speak; it’s not asking me or other people to shut up.”
In a flattering profile in 2006, Wang was described in a Qingdao newspaper as believing she was “born for politics.” Wang said she writes poetry in classical Chinese, plays a traditional string instrument called the guzheng, and participated in democracy discussion boards back home.
Wang said she was not in favor of Tibetan independence, but she said problems could be reduced if the two sides understood each other better.
Since riots in Tibet broke out last month, campuses including Cornell, the University of Washington and the University of California, Irvine, have seen a wave of counterdemonstrations.
When Wang encountered the two demonstrations last week, the Chinese students seemed to expect her to join them, she said. But she hesitated.
“They were really shocked to see that I was deciding, because the Chinese side thought I shouldn’t even decide at all,” she said. “In the end, I decided not to be on either side, because they were too extreme.”
Daniel R. Cordero, a member of the Duke Human Rights Coalition and an organizer of the pro-Tibet vigil, said he was handing out literature when Wang came up and pointed to the counterprotesters.
“She was, like, ‘Why are you focusing on the Duke students? Let’s have a dialogue with these people,’” he said. “And I’m thinking, oh come on, seriously, that’s not going to help anything.”
Some of Wang’s efforts to mediate were met by insults and obscenities from the Chinese students.
“She stood her ground; she’s a really brave girl,” said Adam Weiss, the student on whose back Wang wrote “Free Tibet.” “You have 200 of your own fellow nationalists yelling at you and calling you a traitor and even threatening to kill you.”
At Wang’s behest, he ultimately spoke to some of the Chinese contingent, finding, he said, that “we could compromise and say we all wanted increased human rights for all Chinese, and especially for Tibetans.”
Sherry, a Chinese graduate student who declined to give her last name for fear of being harassed, had a less heroic view.
“She claimed she wanted to make communications between both sides, but actually she did nothing before that night. She didn’t communicate with any organizers and actually was just performing,” Sherry said. But she called the backlash against Wang “horrible.”
“There are a few students that are very angry at her,” she said, “but there are many others who try to protect her, try to speak for her. Actually, the majority didn’t think she did so wrong to be treated like that.”
She said Wang had squandered some sympathy when, in an article in The Duke Chronicle, she blamed the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association for helping to release her information through its e-mail list.
This week, three officers of the association explained in an open letter that the mailing list was public and called the verbal attacks on Wang “troubling and heinous.” Her personal information and other offensive posts were removed “once they were brought to our attention,” the letter said. Student groups criticized the association for allowing them to be posted at all.
Zhizong Li, the president of the association, referred most questions to the university but said that only about a third of the pro-China demonstrators were association members. Duke has just over 500 Chinese students.
Wang, who has retained a lawyer, said pulling her personal information off the Web was not enough. “I will be seen as a traitor forever, and they can still harm my parents,” she said.
But for a woman under threat of dismemberment, she seemed remarkably sanguine — even upbeat.
“My parents are very tolerant to me,” she explained. “They were really disappointed in me for a long time, and I persuaded them to think differently.
“If I can change my parents, I can probably change others.”