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.
This wasn’t an isolated example of paid political mobilization. A similar arrangement had occurred in February 2012, when Xi visited Washington as vice chairman. In that case, it took almost a year for the embassy to transfer the promised funds to the George Washington CSSA. In January 2013, the student group sent a message, recently reviewed by Foreign Policy, to its members saying the compensation from Xi’s welcome the previous year was finally available, and they could come pick up the cash at the campus community center if they brought a photo ID. The George Washington CSSA did not respond to a request for comment.
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