Beijing’s increasingly bold attempts to shape global perceptions has seen Chinese students and staff on university campuses frequently targeted, harassed and intimidated for holding pro-democracy views, a new report says.
At the same time, with their eye firmly on their bottom lines, Australian universities have failed to protect those who are intimidated or harassed victims of such attacks, with Chinese students making up for 10 per cent of all university enrolments, the report from Human Rights Watch says.
“In 2020, nearly 160,000 students from China were enrolled in Australian universities. Despite the Chinese government in Beijing being thousands of kilometres away, many Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia say they alter their behaviour and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from fellow classmates and being ‘reported on’ by them to authorities back home,” the report says.
Students and academics whose research interests are on China told the report’s authors that the atmosphere of intimidation has worsened in recent years.
“The Chinese government has grown bolder in trying to shape global perceptions of the country on foreign university campuses, influence academic discussions, monitor students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom,” the report, They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have: How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities, says.
Lead author Sophie McNeill said universities were turning a “blind eye” to reports of harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its supporters.
“The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff,” Ms McNeill said.
However, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities were “vigilant in their commitment to academic freedom and intellectual enquiry”.
“The University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) is actively working on measures designed to counter interference in the university sector. Right now, further work is being done to strengthen deterrence to this kind of coercion as part of the refresh of the UFIT guidelines,” Ms Jackson said.
The report acknowledges the work of UFIT but argues that the protection of research interests and national security were the focus of the taskforce, which remains “unprepared to address threats to academic freedom in a systematic way for students from China and China-focused academics, or responding to issues of censorship and self-censorship”.
The report notes that the majority of Chinese students in Australia are unaffected by intimidatory behaviour which is carried out “by a small but highly motivated and vocal minority who have the potential to influence many others”.
Mentions of Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang on social media can be flash points for the pro-China brigade.
One student told the report’s authors that “I have to censor myself. This is the reality. I come to Australia and still I’m not free. I never talk about politics here.”
“The majority of students who experienced harassment didn’t report it to their university,” Ms McNeill said. “They believe their universities care more about maintaining relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating students supportive of China’s Communist Party.”