Nine NYU Shanghai Students Arrested in China

Plainclothes police reportedly roughed up and drug tested the students.

Siegrid Tuttle
4 min readJul 7, 2021
NYU Shanhai building photo with headline ‘NYU Students Arrested in China’ on top.
Graphic by author.

Nine NYU Shanghai students were detained and roughed up by plainclothes police officers earlier this month in two separate incidents, according to a report by The Washington Post. Students reported that the police did not have badges and used unnecessary force.

The officers in question arrested a group of seven students from a small birthday party gathering at an off-campus apartment on March 12, according to NYU Shanghai spokesperson June Shih. Shih says NYU believes police were targeting one particular person at the gathering, but arrested everyone. It is unclear why NYU believes one student was being targeted.

In a separate incident on the same night, plainclothes police officers also arrested two students at a bar, who were taken into custody after one student was reportedly kicked in the head and sustained bruising, according to the Post.

Six of the students involved are American citizens. The other three are citizens of Finland, Morocco, and Malaysia, according to the Post. Shih said it appeared the students were arrested due to alleged drug activity, though “none of the students were found to have used or been in possession of drugs, and none were charged with a crime.” All of the students were released the following morning after testing negative for drug use.

“The well-being of our students is NYU Shanghai’s foremost concern,” Shih said. “This was an extremely frightening experience for our students and our support for the affected students is ongoing. We are prepared to work with any student who feels he or she was mistreated by law enforcement.”

While there is no proof the students were targeted for political reasons, relations between China and the United States are extremely tense at the moment. At the first diplomatic meeting between Chinese officials and the Biden administration, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China’s actions on the world stage “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability” and make the world more violent. In turn, China’s top diplomats accused the U.S. of committing human rights violations against other nations and minorities in the United States.

The U.S. Justice Department’s “China Initiative” puts international universities at the center of these heightening tensions. The China Initiative is a program designed to protect intellectual property at U.S. universities and private firms from Chinese espionage. The program started under President Trump, and has been continued under President Biden, despite claims from professors and leading Asian American advocacy groups that it is discriminatory and “threatens the openness that defines U.S. universities.”

Under the initiative, over 1,000 visas for Chinese students were abruptly canceled. Multiple professors at universities such as Harvard and MIT have been indicted under the program because they “failed to disclose affiliations and funding from Chinese entities,” according to a report by the Atlantic. Furthermore, the Atlantic reports professors were arrested for affiliations with China that “are generally not illegal in and of themselves, and in some instances are actively encouraged by the American university.”

It is unclear whether NYU has been cooperating with the China Initiative by interfering with the work of faculty with ties to China. If NYU is cooperating with this program, the arbitrary arrests may have been a retaliatory strike. According to the Washington Post, two of the arrested Americans have parents who work for the Defense Department.

Some professors are not convinced NYU is taking appropriate steps to protect students and faculty in China.

Rebecca Karl, professor of Chinese history at NYU’s New York campus, said NYU Shanghai “necessarily operates as a bubble…as soon as students go off campus, they are no longer in a bubble and are therefore potential targets of PRC security forces.”

Lack of transparency, political oppression, and corruption in the Chinese justice system put students at risk for violent and arbitrary arrests. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Washington Post, “The Chinese legal system can be opaque and enforcement of local laws arbitrary.”

Karl says that NYU has repeatedly told faculty it is unable or unwilling to help students and faculty who are targeted by PRC authorities or get into legal trouble in China. NYU spokesperson Shih says the students have been offered support and the school is “currently seeking more information from city authorities to better understand this weekend’s police actions.”

Karl claims that “the university dodges all attempts to get actual information” on student and faculty interactions with Chinese authorities. However, according to NYU Shanghai students, who asked to remain anonymous, the school did inform students of the arrests via email. And Shih says the PRC has requested the school not intervene in legal matters until the government has finished drug testing or the initial stages of the investigation.

This article will be updated with any relevant developments.