ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — An intense, and complex international geopolitical conflict has reached our city — and the public protests in Hong Kong have the University of Rochester under pressure.

The university recently moved a few flags as part of their international display — a move that would boil tensions on campus.

Flag division

For 25 years, the flag display in UR’s Hirst Lounge has been a source of great pride for the university’s community, as it was updated each year to represent the current student population.

However, two of the flags in Hirst Lounge on the campus were recently moved: the Hong Kong and Taiwan flags.

According to a UR’s website, “China” is listed under the category of “Flags of UN Recognized States” while “Hong Kong, SAR” and “Taiwan” are now listed under “Other Countries and Regions.”

Hong Kong and Taiwan flags have been separated from rest.

“Suddenly the flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan were moved from the national section to a sub-national section,” said UR student Warish Orko.

The move by the university caused a lot of criticism and backlash on campus, some students called the decision “divisive.”

“There is a lot of unrest going on with students undermining and devaluing the national identities of other students on campus,” said UR student Yaal Dryer.

Paint the tunnel

To show support and promote inclusion, a few UR students painted messages of love and solidarity in one of the tunnels on campus. Some of the paintings featured pro-Hong Kong messages, which created another issue.

“Within 24 hours an organized campaign specifically targeted these messages and covered them up with caricatures and hateful language,” said Orko.

A video post went viral on social media (both Facebook and Reddit) and shows people at the University of Rochester painting over pro-Hong Kong slogans in that tunnel that’s popular for student graffiti. It’s become an issue of contention online for both UR social media groups, as well as r/HongKong.

The video was taken by UR student Mustapha Ibrahim and he says he was there when the Chinese Student Scholar Association painted over the walls.

“I do think this is happening because of China’s policy of one nation. There are regions of China that are trying to break away,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim also says that freedom of speech on campus is being denied.

“What they’re doing is … they’re basically making sure that people from those regions have no voice,” Ibrahim said.

The tunnels at UR have a long history, and it’s been a tradition to paint the walls of which. The tunnel that runs underneath Eastman Quad, where the video above took place, is re-painted every several weeks by different clubs and organizations to advertise upcoming events.

It’s such a common practice that there’s even a section on UR’s website about tunnel painting policy. Usually it’s a space for some lighthearted, artistic promotion for clubs and events, but not in this instance.

“Hongkongers and pro-Hongkongers are just getting harassed and silenced,” Ibrahim said.


This video gives a timeline of events in regards to the tunnel painting. In less than 15 hours, the messages of solidarity were covered up:

This video was posted by the YouTube account UR CSSA, which stands for the University of Rochester Chinese Students & Scholars Association.

Ibrahim and Zaman say this is the group behind the effort to cover up the Hong Kong solidarity paintings.

According to the group’s LinkedIn page, the UR CSSA was established in the 1980s to serve “all Chinese students and scholars at UR and protecting their legal rights while studying abroad. URCSSA is responsible for building up connections inside Chinese students community and outside to the world.”

It continues: “Based on the idea of serving Chinese students community and spread Chinese culture to the campus, URCSSA will continue to provide better activities and serve as a forum to build active relations between Chinese and American cultures.”

A 2018 Foreign Policy report said that CSSA organizations throughout America are funded by the Chinese government to coordinate certain efforts. The report said:

“When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Washington on Sept. 24, 2015 on a state visit, hundreds of Chinese students lined the streets for hours, carrying banners and flags to welcome him. It was a remarkable display of seemingly spontaneous patriotism.

Except it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. The Chinese Embassy paid students to attend and helped organize the event. Working with Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) at local universities — a Chinese student organization with branches at dozens of schools around the country — government officials from the office of educational affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington collected the contact information of about 700 students who had signed up to attend. Embassy officials communicated with students via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, during the event and into the night, responding to messages as late as 3 a.m.

According to a Chinese student at George Washington University who attended the event, participants each received about $20 for their effort, distributed through the CSSA a few months later.”

The report went on to detail other instances of intervention from the Chinese governments on U.S. campuses, but there is no confirmed link at this time if the Chinese government initiated the UR tunnel painting incident.

What’s next

There is no easy solution to this issue, in Hong Kong or at the University of Rochester. While it plays out, UR officials are leaning toward a conservative approach, sensitive to both sides of the conflict.

In response to the backlash, UR’s Dean of Students and Dean of the College released a statement to students Monday:

Dear students,

We are writing today to address ongoing issues related to the flag display in Wilson Commons and the recent paintings in the tunnels. Students and other members of our community with widely different viewpoints have asked the College to state clearly our positions on these matters. In short, we believe that our community is capable of imagining and creating a better representation of our global diversity than what we have through the flag display in Hirst Lounge, and that the College has a sacred responsibility to uphold freedom of expression on our campus.

The College, will not stand in the way of our students’ right to freedom of expression. This freedom is not absolute, even in the tunnels where our students have had the ability to paint messages with little constraint.  However, our acting to inhibit any particular point of view over another, regardless of whether or not one is seen as more favorable to many, and regardless of whether or not one is seen as offensive, is not an activity in which the College engages, except under only the very rarest of circumstances.  (See tunnel painting guidelines for more information.)  We all have a responsibility to engage in dialogue that is respectful and civil, but this responsibility cannot be used as an excuse to forbid speech that is disagreeable, uncomfortable, or even deeply offensive.

Wilson Commons is a gathering point for students, faculty, and staff from across the University as well as for alumni and other visitors to campus, and the flags evoke a variety of emotional responses for each of these groups. Flags are emblems that represent nation states, not necessarily the individuals within them.

Being ideological constructs, national flags often act as flashpoints for the many issues that create and maintain the idea of a specific nation. Because of complex and often competing issues, flags can be sources for feelings of exclusion as well as inclusion. For all of these reasons, we do not think that flags are an adequate or acceptable mechanism to reflect the diversity of our campus in the future, even though we know that they are hung with the best of intentions. Nor do we think that we should place students in the position of delegates representing their nations. Students are here to learn and grow. All in our community are welcome equally, working to become better people to make the world Ever Better. Therefore, we must as a community find a display which is just that—Ever Better—and which more adequately celebrates the diversity of our campus.

Division and divisiveness often lead well-intentioned members of our community astray from our University’s Meliora Values of Equity, Leadership, Integrity, Openness, Respect, and Accountability. Discourse with appreciation for the members of our community can and does uphold our values. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of inquiry are fundamental to our campus and to higher education in the United States. Without them, we cease to exist as a College. We further embrace our position as one of the most internationally diverse institutions of higher education in the country to explore further and better than we have what defines a global student body, and we do this while remaining true to our fundamental values.  

We will take time over the next several months to explore alternatives to the flag display. There will be opportunities for all campus stakeholders, from students to alumni, to engage in this process. We will also hold several campus conversations as well as faculty and student panels to explore concepts of representation, identity, nationalism, nationhood, and the residential campus experience of US higher education.

For the past 25 years, the flag display in Wilson Commons has been the source of both great pride and sincere disagreement among members of our campus community.  This has often resulted in difficult and, at times, emotional discussions about related issues — which is, of course, what ought to happen on a university campus in such situations. However, the time has come for us to find a better way forward. Some information about how we arrived at this place with regard to the flag display can be found here. For now, and until a better solution can be found, the flags will remain in Wilson Commons following our protocol. We look forward to working with all of our students, faculty, staff, and researchers on this project of becoming Ever Better.

While the college and its community work to find an amicable solution for both sides, an online petition has been established with a goal of “Condemning censorship at the University of Rochester.” As of Tuesday night, it was closing in on 500 signatures.

“They cannot do that here,” Ibrahim said. “They cannot do that in our home of Rochester. They may be able to do that in China, or Tibet, but not here, not today.”

All three students we spoke with said it’s important to emphasize that this situation shouldn’t be used as an excuse for racist attacks against Chinese students on campus. They say it’s not about violence or retribution, but just a showing of support and solidarity for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and the Uyghur people.