A French scholar’s endorsement of Xinjiang policy raises concerns about the infiltration of Chinese influence

Overseas Uighur and human rights activists rally outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, Feb. 19, 2021, calling on Canada and other countries to recognize the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang as genocide.

The French weekly ” Opinion ” published a lengthy investigative report on 26 February on the infiltration of Chinese influence in French higher Education institutions through the ambiguous relationship between Christian Mestre, former dean of the French law school in Strasbourg, and China, especially his support for the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy . In the context of the human rights issues of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the expansion of China’s acute power that has sparked widespread international concern, the article has caused ripples in French public opinion. The person in question, Meister, explained this on the 26th at a meeting of the European Cities Group in Strasbourg, where he currently serves as ethics officer. According to the latest report on the Strasbourg 89th Street website, Meister announced his resignation as ethics and morality officer of the European Cities Group on the same day.

The event that attracted the particular attention of ” Viewpoint ” weekly Asia correspondent Jérémy André was a seminar organized by the Ministry of Propaganda on international counter-terrorism efforts as well as human rights topics that Mester attended in Xinjiang in September 2019. Meister was the opening speaker at the conference. According to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua and the English version of the Global Times, this Meister not only affirmed the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang, but also hoped that France and European countries would learn from the Chinese government’s counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang, such as the organization of so-called vocational training centers. However, in recent years, many international human rights organizations as well as scholars and media have published investigations and studies revealing that the so-called vocational training centers in Xinjiang are detention camps where Muslims, especially Uighurs, are arbitrarily detained. Moreover, not only is forced labor suspected here, but recent testimonies from Uyghur women who have been able to escape indicate that many Uyghur women have been raped and sexually assaulted or forcibly sterilized while in detention. These reports have sparked widespread reactions in the international community. Following the U.S., the Canadian Parliament recently passed a resolution arguing that the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang have amounted to genocide. The Dutch parliament also passed a non-binding motion on the 25th, arguing that Uyghurs are being subjected to genocide in China. This is the first Time a European country has made such a statement. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council on the 24th, French Foreign Minister Le Drian argued that Uighurs face an institutionalized repression.

For the Chinese government, which has been constantly condemned on the international stage since 2018 over the issue of re-education camps in Xinjiang, the support of Mester, who was once dean of the law school of the University of Strasbourg, undoubtedly has an unusual significance. But Meister’s statement was much to the consternation of his former peers. Thomas Boutonnet, head of the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Strasbourg, stressed that Meister’s remarks did not represent the department’s position. He said that such political speeches are not the work of academics. In his opinion, such statements cannot even be described as naïve and naive, but rather as denialist.

Meister himself said in this regard that it was the official Chinese media that misinterpreted his speech. But ” Viewpoints” weekly reporter pointed out in this regard that if it is true that the Chinese official media misinterpreted his original meaning, why did Meister himself never raised a rebuttal in the year and a half since then?

Meister’s controversial stance on China issues does not only involve Xinjiang; in September 2014, the law school he leads held an exhibition, lecture and other series of events on Tibetan issues. According to an email seen by the ” Viewpoint ” weekly, the events in question were organized at the request of the Chinese Consulate General in Strasbourg. A lecturer at the law school told ” Viewpoint” weekly that the opening ceremony of that event said that there was no question of Tibet being annexed by China.

By sorting out Meister’s ambiguous relationship with the Chinese government, this Viewpoint Weekly article sheds light on the difficult choices of the French academy in the process of strengthening cooperation with China and expanding academic exchanges in the face of China’s politically oriented engagement policy. According to this article, the Alsace region, where Strasbourg is located, has had several contacts with China regarding the establishment of a Confucius Institute, which started outside the university in 2008 when negotiations with the University of Strasbourg ended in failure, and since 2012 the university has been under pressure from all sides, both from the Chinese side and from the Alsace region. The Chinese side had offered to invest in Alsace in exchange for the Confucius Institute being affiliated with the University of Strasbourg. The university originally found a compromise to allow the Confucius Institute to operate off-campus, but in 2011, Meister was elected Dean of the Faculty of Law and, in May 2013, proposed that the Confucius Institute be integrated into the Faculty of Law. That same year, however, the relationship between the University of Lyon and the Confucius Institute, which was incorporated into the university’s first and second universities, finally broke down.

Meister was not re-elected dean of the law school in 2016, but cooperation with China did not stop, or even the opposite. He was hired at Southwest University in Chongqing and became a member of the Chahar Institute, a research institute with Zhang Guobin, former Chinese consul general in Strasbourg, as secretary general. During the New Crown Epidemic, he also gave interviews to Chinese media, praising the Chinese government’s anti-epidemic measures and criticizing the French and European governments for their ineffective actions ……

The weekly ” Viewpoint ” cites a study by a US think tank that points out that China has embarked on a kind of double-cross diplomacy through a charm strategy to attract countries and regions that are not at the heart of the globalization process and that are not valued by the West, and to attract institutions from second- or third-tier cities. Some French universities have thus been targeted.

In response to the concerns raised by this article in the weekly ” Opinion “, Meister himself should explain on the 26th at the meeting of the Presidents of the European Cities Cluster in Strasbourg. Syamak Agha Babaei, who is vice-president of the European Cities Group and also first deputy mayor of Strasbourg, recently called on Meister himself to explain this, as it is a political statement of position on the issue of how the Chinese government treats a political and religious minority. He pointed out that if these reports are true, they are very problematic. It is not in line with Meister’s position as ethics and morality officer for the European Cities Group. The Alsatian website had an entry for an article on the evening of the 25th about Meister calling what is happening in Xinjiang outrageous, but when clicked on, the entry in question was no longer accessible ……

In recent years, Western countries have become increasingly aware of the penetration of Chinese sharp power in various fields. In France alone, for example, in addition to the ” Viewpoint” piece, the French public television channel 2 broadcast a documentary on the evening of the 25th focusing on this issue. The film mentioned in particular the vigilance of the French counterintelligence services about the real purpose behind Chinese cooperation projects in multiple fields in Brittany. Brittany is Home not only to French nuclear submarines and telecommunications companies, but also to the prestigious French Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea. The institute is particularly focused on undersea microbial research.

However, although French communities are beginning to be aware of the penetration of Chinese influence and are uneasy about it. But as several French experts on China have pointed out, government policy is inconsistent and often contradictory. The Chinese government, in the name of cooperation and with the help of financial investments, has attracted many people, from political circles, to business and academia, to endorse its policies.