A Swiss PhD student at the University of St Gallen has alleged that he was removed from the doctoral programme and had three years of research quashed after he posted critical sentiments on social media about the Chinese Communist Party regime.
Oliver Gerber (a pseudonym used to protect the identity of his girlfriend in Wuhan, China) said that after posting on Twitter for just ten days about Communist China, he was cancelled by his own university after his supervising professor received a “complaint from China about your Twitter”.
The professor informed the PhD student in March of last year that she had received “angry emails from China” which alleged that he was posting “neo-Nazi-like content” on social media, the Swiss daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported.
“Ultimately, it may even turn out that I won’t be able to get a visa to China because of you. This is definitely going too far, and I would have to end our advisory relationship,” she told Gerber, adding that he should “tone down his political expression immediately”.
The professor went on to say that she had “no desire to receive emails like this because of one of my doctoral students.”
One of Gerber’s posts (in English) on Twitter read: “#CCP made fighting #COVID-19 plan B. Only to be executed if Plan A – covering it up – fails. Those are the actions of paranoid cowards. They neither deserve my respect nor gratitude #ChinaLiedPeopleDied.”
After becoming aware of his posts on social media, his girlfriend in Wuhan urged him to stop, warning of possible retaliation from the Communist regime.
“I’m in Switzerland, not China,” Gerber responded, declaring: “I can say what I want here.”
Following the email from his professor, Gerber deactivated his Twitter account, however, the next day he was blocked from accessing his university email account, which an IT technician informed him no longer existed.
“It felt like I had been purged overnight,” Gerber told the Swiss paper.
He went on to accuse his professor of having been “taken in by [the] Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive censorship.”
Gerber, whose three years of research has effectively been washed down the drain, added: “I can’t believe something like this happened in Switzerland.”
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It is not the first time that his criticisms of the dictatorship in Beijing have impacted his career, Gerber alleged, saying that in 2018 he received the lowest possible grade after submitting an essay on re-education camps in China.
The University of St Gallen claimed that Gerber’s removal from their PhD programme was in fact his decision. Admittedly, the student did ‘deregister’ the prior year on the advice of the programme director, so that his time spent studying in Wuhan did not count against the maximum time allotted to complete his PhD at St Gallen.
In emails seen by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Gerber was assured that this was a “wise decision” and that re-registering with the university would be easily completed after he finished his studies in China and that this practice was standard.
St Gallen also maintains that no financial incentive played a role in the dismissal of Gerber, claiming that the professor’s department has not received funding or support from any Chinese sources.
However, the paper noted that Swiss and Chinese universities have become increasingly tied, with over fifty co-operation agreements in place. Researchers in Switzerland are granted access to swaths of data from the secretive regime and are afforded the ability to travel to China, as was noted in the professor’s email to Gerber.
In response to the allegations, Vice-President of External Relations for St Gallen, Ulrich Schmid, said: “St Gallen is unreservedly committed to the freedoms of teaching and research. However, the freedom of research is in no way implicated here, since the issue concerns private statements by the former doctoral student, which he published via a social network.”
Schmid refused to comment on the specifics of the Tweets in question, but said: “However, the fact that they obviously generated considerable discussion, and were perceived as racist, justifies the professor’s desire to distance herself clearly from them.”
One post shared by Gerber criticised China’s imperious actions against Taiwan and Hong Kong, and included a political cartoon that featured stereotypically East Asian features.
“In retrospect, I realize I didn’t question the rendering of the Chinese person enough,” Gerber said.
Gerber has given up hopes of earning a PhD and is now pursuing a career that has nothing to do with China, saying: “I don’t want to have to censor myself, certainly not in Switzerland.”
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