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INTERVIEW/A discussion with Cosette Wu, the woman behind the Harvard speech disruption

04/26/2024 11:25 PM
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Cosette Wu (left), holds a protest with a fellow Tibetan student on April 20, when the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Xie Feng was giving a speech at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP
Cosette Wu (left), holds a protest with a fellow Tibetan student on April 20, when the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Xie Feng was giving a speech at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP

Taipei, April 26 (CNA) "You robbed Hong Kongers of the most fundamental freedom and devastated their democracy. Now in my country Taiwan, you sought to do the same." A yell from the audience disrupts the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Xie Feng's (謝鋒) speech at Harvard University that marked the opening of the Harvard Kennedy School China Conference 2024 on April 20.

The person shouting was Taiwanese American Harvard student Cosette Wu (吳亭樺), a co-director of the organization "Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP," who was then forcibly removed from the scene by a man.

The man was subsequently identified as a fellow Harvard student who helped organize Xie's visit.

Speaking with CNA in a recent interview, Wu said she was prepared to be removed but "did not expect to be treated so violently."

"We definitely understand that there's the right for Harvard event security to remove disruptive protesters, but I didn't expect somebody who was just another student to charge at me in that way."

Three fellow Harvard students -- one Taiwanese American and two Tibetans -- joined Wu at the protest in the conference hall. Similar protests organized by the Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP and "Students for a Free Tibet," were also staged outside.

"We wanted to emphasize that we will not allow somebody who is representing and advocating for a genocidal government and someone who personally oversaw the destruction of Hong Kong's free society and has done all of these things to all of our communities, to have this platform at a university that has members that are affected by what he's done," Wu said.

A turning point

Wu originally dreamt of being a doctor and it was not until she started learning more about her family history that she felt the desire to "do something for Taiwan."

Growing up, Wu's parents taught her about Taiwanese history. She said she always sort of knew that her great-grandfather was a victim of the 228 Incident, an anti-government uprising in 1947 that was violently suppressed by the then-ruling Kuomintang and led to the death and imprisonment of thousands of civilians.

Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP
Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP

Born in 1902, Wu's great-grandfather Shih Jiang-nan (施江南) was the second Taiwanese to receive a doctorate in medicine during the Japanese colonial period. He promoted public health education and founded the now-demolished Sifang Hospital in Taipei. A well-respected man, he was taken from his home in the hospital on March 11, 1947 and never seen again.

In her sophomore year of high school, Wu started researching Shih, talking to several family members to learn more about her great-grandfather. Her efforts led to her biography of his life, "The Story of Shih Jiangnan" being published in her senior year of high school.

Wu said she "didn't want his story to be lost," and because there are "a lot of 228 victims" whose stories "unfortunately faded away," she thought it was important to have her great-grandfather's story told in English so it would "be accessible to people like me who are Taiwanese American."

"It was a really powerful learning experience for me to not only learn about my great grandpa but also to learn about Taiwanese history as a whole," Wu said, adding that "understanding Taiwan's authoritarian past is what sparked my realization that we can't take democracy for granted."

Wanting to do something for Taiwan

Researching the life of her great-grandfather opened the door to Wu learning more about Taiwan's history and democracy, which led to her interning with a range of organizations that focused on matters such as security in the Asia Pacific and Taiwan's history and democracy.

Her internship experience spanned from writing educational pieces on the 1990 Wild Lily student movement to deepening her understanding of foreign policy and cross-strait relations. The more she learned, the more she felt the "imperative to protect Taiwan's hard-earned freedom."

At the end of her freshman year, she decided to switch her major from molecular and cellular biology to economics and government, hoping to "pursue a career" where she could "do something to help Taiwan."

It was not an easy decision, but a chat with her dad helped confirm it was the right one.

"My dad told me the next 50 years are going to be the most important for Taiwan and if you don't fight for your own freedom, nobody's going to do it for you," she said.

Therefore, despite the "scary uncertainties" ahead, Wu said she still feels "very confident" with her decision.

Cosette Wu. CNA photo April 23, 2024
Cosette Wu. CNA photo April 23, 2024

In the summer of her freshman year, she interned at Forward Alliance, a Taiwanese national security and civil defense think tank. "It was the first time that I was able to feel like I was doing something for Taiwan really on the ground," she said.

While interning, she taught civil defense courses and learned how to talk about Taiwan to an international audience, as she helped founder Enoch Wu (吳怡農), a Taiwanese policy advocate, prepare for interviews.

Wu said she found working with people in person "really exciting," especially as she was able to revisit Taiwan due to the COVID-19 situation becoming less acute. She added that she enjoyed the blend of conducting research and preparing for interviews while learning more about national security issues.

Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP

Wu also spoke with CNA about the coalition's work and goals, which members have been working towards since its establishment in December 2023.

The coalition began following discussions between herself, Tibetan, and Uyghur students at Harvard, who connected through cross-movement protests in Boston, Wu explained.

Now comprising Tibetan, Taiwanese, Uyghur and Hong Kong students, the coalition focuses on collective liberation and elevating cross-movement solidarity through its three main pillars: "Research, Restore, Resist."

The Research pillar refers to fostering scholarly research about the intersections of different movements to help strategize how we can work together better, Wu said.

The Restore pillar refers to restoring the truth about our histories and movements in classrooms and on campuses, Wu added.

The third, Resist, means focusing on mobilizing students to take action against the CCP and stand with all our cross-movement communities.

Understanding Taiwanese history has also significantly influenced the way she views cross-movement work and its importance, Wu said, adding that she often thinks about what different groups can learn from each other and about how "our Taiwanese ancestors and elders who fought so hard for the freedoms we have today."

She also spoke about her exchanges with fellow coalition members, who include a Chinese student who is very interested in "what the Taiwanese diaspora did (to fight for Taiwan's freedom and democracy) back when we were not yet democratized."

Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP
Photo courtesy of Coalition of Students Resisting the CCP

Furthermore, she said learning about the experiences of the Tibetan members of the coalition has profoundly altered how she views the potential of the Taiwanese American activist community and the broader Taiwanese diaspora.

"Seeing the immense level of youth activism and engagement that they have" enables her to work with not only other individuals but also more Taiwanese Americans, on that same level.

Wu said she also recognizes the privilege that comes with being Taiwanese American due to her having "a lot more freedom and security than many of her cross-movement friends," and that she thinks it is important that she "utilizes that privilege to do what I can do and support and further their freedom movements."

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan and Bernadette Hsiao)

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