In the first part of this year, Australia had been due to host student-group visits from dozens of Chinese schools.
But last month – abruptly – most of the groups cancelled.
The sudden disruption to Australia’s China education ties – the kinds of visits that inspire students to then choose to return to Australia for university study – has sent a shiver through an already jittery Australian tertiary sector.
It is the latest sign that all is not well in the two countries’ relations. But more than that, some see it as a clear message from China: when it comes to bilateral brinkmanship, two can play.
In the wake of Australia’s newly unveiled plans to introduce foreign interference laws aimed largely at stemming Chinese influence, the Chinese government has been effectively discouraging its students from studying in Australia, suggesting it’s not safe.
The warning is being interpreted here as an attempt to dissuade parents from sending their children and consequently to signal to Australia that China has the power to do it economic harm.
The proposed foreign interference laws came after a series of Australian government interventions interpreted in Beijing as targeting the People’s Republic.
China is making it known that it regards these words and actions over the past year as somewhere between insult and attack.
The controversial publication of China critic Clive Hamilton’s book about influence in Australia, Silent Invasion, and this week’s turnaround at Shanghai Airport of Chinese–Australian John Hugh, who arranged its launch, has brought China’s anger into sharp focus.
Its response, like Australia’s criticisms, has been cumulative.
A series of pointedly critical speeches last year, especially from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, preceded an open warning from Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, about the dangers of foreign interference.
ASIO’s director-general, Duncan Lewis, told a Senate estimates committee hearing in October that Australia must be wary – especially in tertiary education.
“We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities,” Lewis said. “That can go to a range of issues. It can go to the behaviour of foreign students, it can go to the behaviour of foreign consular staff in relation to university lecturers, it can go to atmospherics in universities.”
He did not name China but it was clear that’s who he meant.
Then came the government’s foreign policy white paper in late November, linking China’s rise to an “uncertain outlook” for Australia and declaring it manifestly in Australia’s interests to “advance and defend” the global rules-based order that China is defying through its aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea.
After that, a leak to Fairfax Media exposed then Labor frontbench senator Sam Dastyari’s ties to a Chinese-government-linked business figure and political donor about whom ASIO held concerns.
Dastyari had visited Huang Xiangmo at his home and warned him his phone was probably bugged, effectively giving him counter-surveillance advice.
Government ministers attacked Dastyari, with Turnbull asking: “Whose side is he on?” The Labor MP eventually quit parliament. But for all Turnbull’s success in claiming a political scalp, his rhetoric drew an expression of “strong dissatisfaction” from China.
Despite facing a byelection in Liberal MP John Alexander’s Sydney seat of Bennelong – an electorate with many Chinese–Australian voters – Turnbull did not retreat. Noting modern China had been founded in 1949 with the words “the Chinese people stand up”, Turnbull added: “And so we say ‘the Australian people stand up’. There has been foreign interference in Australian politics, plainly. Sam Dastyari is a very clear case of somebody who has literally taken money from people closely associated with the Chinese government and, in return for that, has delivered essentially Chinese policy statements.”
A few days earlier, in the midst of the scandal and less than a fortnight before the byelection, Turnbull had also unveiled a raft of national security legislation, including proposed new foreign interference laws.
The legislation was presented to parliament in the final hours of the last sitting day of the year. Coming in the midst of the Dastyari furore, the Chinese saw it – correctly – as being aimed predominantly at them.
Since then, their displeasure has been obvious and becoming more so. Some believe China is on a path to punishing Australia economically, and the fear is that the Australian education industry – dependent on fee-paying foreign students – is in its sights.
Universities are already worried that as drafted, the foreign interference laws could jeopardise many collaborative international research projects, forcing participants to register as “foreign” agents.
In its submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which is reviewing the legislation before it goes to a vote, Universities Australia said that while national security must be maintained, the proposed laws had “the potential to stifle innovation and valuable academic research, as well as compromising the ability of Australia’s universities to develop a philanthropic culture in Australia”.
Similarly, the Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s largest universities, said that while it supported safeguarding the political and democratic process, “this need is too important to allow hastily compiled legislation to cause unintended damage to Australia’s high-performing higher education and research sector”.
It suggested the drafting process had been “rushed”.
Others, including Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, have endorsed the legislation as necessary to meet a growing threat.
Australia’s tertiary sector is watching these developments closely. As one senior administrator observes: “This is all extremely sensitive.”
This week, international affairs specialist Keith Suter was more specific. He told Sky News on Wednesday that Chinese students were the third-largest export industry in Australia and, in Victoria, number one.
“We cannot afford to have the Chinese suddenly saying, ‘All right, no more students,’ ” Suter said. “ ‘No more tourists.’ Remember, tourism is also very important.”
The fear that China will “turn off the tap” is swirling through the tertiary sector.
“We can’t confirm the numbers at this stage,” says Associate Professor Jane Golley, the acting director of the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World.
“2017 is absolutely pivotal as a turning point in the Australia–China relationship. That is the year it happened. It is too early to know what the impact will be but I predict it will be substantial.”
While it appears no direct threat has been made to stop students coming, there seems little doubt the Chinese are approaching that destination by a different road.
On December 19, China’s state-sanctioned Global Times newspaper reported that the country’s consulate-general in Melbourne had issued a statement warning Chinese students of “possible safety risks in Australia”.
“Recently there have been several cases of assaults and attacks against Chinese students in different parts of Australia,” it said.
It quoted a research fellow from Sun Yat-sen University, Yu Lei, warning Chinese students not to assume they would be safe. Pointedly, it also suggested living in Australia was not as much fun as China.
“In China, many teenagers love to eat, drink and have fun outside after midnight and go home at 3am or later,” Yu was quoted as saying. “But in Australia, the common knowledge is that you shouldn’t stay out too late.”
The statement also referred to past attacks on Indian students. It quoted an unnamed Chinese student at the University of Melbourne, saying: “If we haven’t done anything wrong and we get insulted and attacked only because of our skin colour and race, then this society is too unjust, unfair and inhuman.”
Some China specialists in Australia argue the warning is legitimate, given there have been violent attacks. Other countries have made similar warnings that have not been seen conspiratorially.
In January, the Chinese government expressed its displeasure more directly after International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells spoke out against China’s investment in the Pacific. The minister accused China of “duchessing” Pacific nations, building “white elephant” infrastructure and roads to “nowhere”.
China protested against the minister’s comments to Australia’s embassy in Beijing, and its Xinhua news agency pronounced Australia “least friendly country” for 2017.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop distanced herself from her colleague’s comments. But the head of her own department, Frances Adamson, had said something similar herself six months earlier at a speech to the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.
And separately, she had warned Chinese students in Australia against spreading propaganda or trying to gag dissenting views.
“Silencing anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values,” Adamson told students in Adelaide.
That was before the blow-up with China over Australian ministers’ increasingly strong rhetoric and legislative plans.
The arguments for and against the foreign interference laws continue to be made.
This week in Washington, DC, Prime Minister Turnbull’s former senior adviser, John Garnaut, previously Fairfax Media’s China correspondent, gave evidence before the United States Congress’s house armed services committee, which is investigating state and non-state influence and its impact on national security.
Garnaut was blunt. “The Chinese Communist Party manipulates incentives inside our countries in order to shape the conversation, manage perceptions and tilt the political and strategic landscape to its advantage,” he told the hearing.
“The party works hard to find common interests and cultivate relationships of dependency with chosen partners. The modus operandi is to offer privileged access, build personal rapport and reward those who deliver.”
But a group of academic China specialists and scholars led by Sydney University’s David Brophy has made a late submission to Australia’s parliamentary inquiry, arguing the debate surrounding Chinese influence has created “an atmosphere ill-suited to the judicious balancing of national security interests with the protection of civil liberties”.
The letter said the legislation would “criminalise the simple act of receiving information” and that the proposed exemptions for journalists would not protect scholars. The group strongly rejects suggestions that Australia’s community of China experts had been “intimidated or bought off”.
Brophy told The Saturday Paper the proposed broad-brush foreign interference laws may put Australia’s interests at risk.
“From China’s point of view, this would all be part and parcel of Australia joining a United States strategy to demonise China, to ramp up pressure on China and to shape public opinion to support a confrontation.”
Another of what by Thursday became 45 signatories, former Australian ambassador to China Stephen FitzGerald, warned against inflaming anti-Chinese sentiment.
“This is a time when we should not be alarmist,” FitzGerald told The Saturday Paper.
“We have, I think, a period of tension in our relationship ... It’s not good, whether for our domestic harmony and wellbeing or for our relations with China. We’ve got to have a sober approach to this that avoids the name-calling, the dog whistling and all that.”
As ambassador to Beijing in the 1970s, FitzGerald urged the Australian government at that time to prepare for China’s rise and develop a strategy to manage the relationship. He says prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all worked on their personal relationships with Chinese leaders but efforts fell away after that.
FitzGerald acknowledges the circumstances have become much more complex but he insists personal diplomacy remains crucial.
“What I think is most telling is there is almost no one in the present government or the Opposition who can pick up the phone to speak to a senior member of the Chinese government because they know them,” he says.
Instead, he says the relationship has become “totally transactional”.
With both sides now making veiled threats, and import-export industries caught in the middle, Australia finds its own interests in conflict.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 24, 2018 as "Great will of China".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription