National Beat Reporter
Students at UC Davis and UC Berkeley awoke to an unusual warning early last Monday. On Jan. 14, the UC Office of the President (UCOP) Risk Services Department sent a mass email to students at both campuses advising them not to use messaging apps like WhatsApp or WeChat while visiting China. The email was signed by Gary Leonard, Director of General Liability & Property Programs for the UCOP.
“While the use of What’sApp, WeChat and like messaging apps is legal in China, we have seen in the latest espionage charge of a US citizen in Russia where the use of What’sApp has been cited in his espionage charges [sic],” reads the email, according to reporting by the South China Morning Post.
“Our concern here is the possibility China could use this condition similarly against Western travelers to levy charges as an excuse to deny departure,” continues the email. “We recommend not using these messaging apps at this time.”
UC administration denies that the email was intended for students. “It was a recommendation made by WorldAware,” wrote Myla Edmond, Director of Marketing and Communications for the UC Education Abroad Program, in an email to The Bottom Line. “UC staff shared that recommendation with other staff as an information item, not as a recommendation nor as a message for students.”
Regardless of whether UC administration intentionally sent out the recommendation, the email and its timing sheds light on the currently contentious relations between China and the United States.
Ever since Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief Financial Officer of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, at the request of American officials, relations between China and the United States have been complicated.
Washington had originally requested that Ms. Wanzhou be extradited for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Chinese officials deny the allegations and have demanded for Canada to return the Chinese national to the country.
In the weeks following the incident, two Canadian nationals have been taken into Chinese custody on charges involving “national security. Another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was recently sentenced to death by a Chinese court for allegedly plotting to smuggle drugs out of the country.
To outside observers, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, these recent actions by the Chinese government appear to be politically motivated.
Trudeau addressed the Schellenberg sentence directly in a statement to the media, characterizing the Chinese court’s decision as an “arbitrary” application of the death penalty and saying, “It was of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies.”
UCOP administration contends that, given the current tensions surrounding the two countries, travel recommendations like the one sent last Monday are warranted for the safety of employees and students traveling in China.
“We sent the email following a recent Department of State travel advisory for China,” wrote UCOP Director of Media Relations Claire Doan in an email statement. “It is meant for consideration by staff involved in ensuring the safety and security of international travel by individuals in the UC community.”