Student-organized conference sparks backlash from Vancouver Uyghur Association

Last week, the Vancouver Uyghur Association called on BizChina to cancel their 2021 UBC China Forum after the club invited Huawei Canada’s Chief Security Officer to speak at the event, but the event was held as scheduled.

In an open letter addressed to BizChina, the AMS and the Commerce Undergraduate Society, the association expressed concerns about platforming a Huawei representative at the event given the company’s involvement in the surveillance of the Uyghur people in China and alleged benefit from forced Uyghur labour.

As of Friday, March 19 — the first day of the event — the letter had been signed by over 200 people.

The group also cited Huawei’s role in the “arbitrary detention” of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in 2018 as another reason to cancel the event. Kovrig and Spavor have been in Chinese jail for the past two years in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, on extradition charges to the US.

“This is extremely unethical and against UBC’s values to ‘advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world,’” the letter reads.

This is the second time that BizChina has invited individuals from companies with ties to human rights violations to their events. In 2019, two executives from SenseTime and Sina Weibo were scheduled to speak at the 2019 UBC China Forum, but eventually had their invitations rescinded following public backlash.

“This time I feel like there's no excuse for them inviting the Huawei speaker, especially after the last time,” said Shalina Nurly, a youth representative of the Vancouver Uyghur Association, in an interview with The Ubyssey.

“It just felt very ignorant. It felt like they didn’t care what the public’s reaction was.”

BizChina said that, as a student organization, it does not support human rights violations of any kind in a written statement to The Ubyssey.

“Speakers at the Forum represent themselves and do not reflect the views or opinions of our student organization,” a club representative wrote.

The club added that the event had been endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for its goal of providing a platform for constructive discussion between business leaders and academics in Canada and China.

But, Nurly does not believe that BizChina should be striving to have a conversation with China due to the country’s human rights violations.

“I don't think we should be trying to strengthen ties with a country that's carrying out a genocide … making business ties with Chinese companies is essentially working with the Chinese government in a way, and to be working with the Chinese government is a way to be complicit with the genocide.”

The AMS was unaware of the concerns about the BizChina forum until The Ubyssey reached out for comment.

“My office then reached out to the President of BizChina and strongly recommended that they rescinded the invitation of the speaker in question,” wrote Sylvester Mensah, the VP Administration, in an email sent to The Ubyssey. But, this recommendation was ignored as BizChina held its event as scheduled.

On the third and fourth day of the forum, protestors left comments like, “Huawei is complicit in genocide” in the Zoom chat where the event was being held. Nurly confirmed that the Vancouver Uyghur Association participated in the protest.

In a statement posted on Monday, BizChina thanked the protestors for sharing their concerns and again stressed that the club does not support any human rights violations.

“Instead our principal objective is to bring these issues to light by providing a public platform on which ideas can be openly expressed and scrutinized,” the post reads.

Mensah said that the AMS stands in solidarity with UBC students of Uyghur and Chinese heritage and will continue to advocate for human rights around the world. He said his office will work with other AMS bodies to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

“This event shows that there is much more work for us to do as a student body,” Mensah said. “My office, the Operations Committee, and the AMS is [sic] committed to having an open conversation about how we can ensure that our community is one that is safe for all our students.”