Opinion

Louisa Bochner
China’s influence on our campuses

Last month, the University of New South Wales published on its website an interview with Human Rights Watch Australia’s director, Elaine Pearson, who also holds a position as an adjunct lecturer at the university. The interview focused on how the international community can respond to Hong Kong’s new authoritarian national security law imposed by China. UNSW posted a link to this article, with a quote, on its Twitter account on July 31.

By that evening, individuals on the Chinese social media platform WeChat were encouraging one another to get on Twitter and demand the university delete the post; some suggested the hashtag #StopTheWrongPoliticalViewInOurUniversity. The next morning, UNSW deleted the tweet, and the article disappeared. And while the university eventually republished the article, photos and sections of text were removed.

The capitulation prompted academics, alumni and federal parliamentarians to decry it as an act of cowardice. Student activism, especially activism that directly criticises universities, is a hallowed part of the higher education experience, but it’s hard to think of another campaign that has been as successful in such a short period of time.

According to Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a journalist and my colleague at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, such clashes between nationalistic international students and their teachers and peers are now commonplace at Australia’s universities. “A handful of them end up in the papers,” she says, “but in the classrooms, this is happening every day.”

Xu says that in some cases, students act and organise out of a sense of nationalism. In others, they are incited by Chinese officials both in Australia and back in China. Either way, they are well aware that they are powerful in number and an invaluable revenue source that universities can’t afford to lose.

Where nearly 90 per cent of Australian university revenue came from Commonwealth grants in the 1980s, now, according to a 2018 review by the Grattan Institute, international students are their biggest single source of revenue. At UNSW, international students from China make up nearly one-quarter of the total student cohort and represent 68.8 per cent of all international students at the university.

Covid-19 has only highlighted how reliant Australia is on those students. It’s expected that the sharp reduction in the number of international students due to travel restrictions will cost the Australian economy between $30 billion and $60 billion over the next three years. All of this – coupled with no access to JobKeeper benefits – leaves universities understandably nervous about their futures.

Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University, says the reliance of Australian universities on international education has put them in a complicated situation.

“It becomes a particular problem when this industry is concentrated in students from a country whose leadership is openly hostile to academic freedom – and not only hostile to academic freedom, but openly interventionist about discussions on China on a global scale,” he says.

And this difficulty increases when a country has economic leverage, according to Carrico.

After the scuffle over Elaine Pearson’s interview, UNSW put out two different media releases – in English and Mandarin – with two different messages. The English document, written by vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs, stated the university has “unequivocal commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom”.

A separate letter was written in Mandarin and sent to the Chinese international student body. This letter was written by Laurie Pearcey – who is both the pro vice-chancellor (international) and chair of the board of the Confucius Institute at UNSW – and it said the university was “disturbed by the trouble this incident has caused you [the international students]”. Pearcey’s letter made no reference to academic freedom and was described by the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times as an apology to the university’s Chinese students.

While UNSW’s gesture was intended to placate discontent within the international student community, Badiucao, a Chinese artist living in Melbourne known for his work critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), says many members of the Chinese international student community were angered and disheartened by the capitulation.

“In the incident at UNSW, we had pro-democracy [Chinese] students who were feeding the information – feeding all of the screenshots of the pro-CCP kids discussing their anger at the tweet. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have even heard about this case.”

Mark* was one of the pro-democracy international students who told Badiucao of the WeChat conversations about the Pearson interview. This was no small step for him to take.

“The pressure from pro-CCP students is significant,” says Mark. “Because some of the pro-CCP students have ties to the Chinese consulate, they will report any dissenting opinion. And if the Chinese authority sees you as a potential threat, they will intimidate you by harassing your relatives in China. There are also cases where some Chinese students got arrested when they go back to China for the things they said overseas.”

There is an online portal, known as the CCP’s Cyberspace Administration portal, which is used to report students and dissenters to the CCP authorities. The portal is used both within China and abroad to report anything disagreeable to China’s government, from pornography to fraud to individuals who don’t toe the party line.

According to Mark, the site is being used in Australia, too. “During the UNSW incident, there was one pro-democracy student in the Chinese group chat. The pro-CCP students said they have reported his speech to the portal,” he says. “This is terrifying.”

The UNSW case was only the most recent example of a curtailing of academic freedom on campus.

In 2013, the University of Sydney cancelled a visit from the Dalai Lama in an effort to avoid damaging the university’s relationship with China, a decision vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence praised as being in the “best interests of researchers across the university”. In 2018, Victoria University cancelled an anti-CCP film from being screened after diplomats became involved and put pressure on the university.

At the University of Queensland, student Drew Pavlou has found himself in the centre of this tension between the university’s financial interests and their relationship with China. Pavlou was suspended from the university, he alleges, because of his pro-Hong Kong activism on campus.

In May, UQ chancellor Peter Varghese, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, made a public statement about the disciplinary action taken against Pavlou, saying, “There are aspects of the findings and the severity of the penalty which personally concern me.” In August, however, Varghese stated that neither of the two findings of misconduct by the university “concerned Mr Pavlou’s personal or political views about China or Hong Kong”.

UQ has said that for confidentiality reasons, it is not allowed to provide details of the two findings against Pavlou. According to Pavlou, though, the cases where findings were made against him involved wearing a hazmat suit outside the vice-chancellor’s office and calling a fellow student a “cunt” on a public online platform.

While he admits there may have been “bad behaviour” in some instances, Pavlou says UQ’s response was disproportionate in its investigation and contracting of law firms to effectively spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars on expelling someone”. He believes the university was making an example of him, attempting to warn off other pro-Hong Kong and anti-CCP activists on campus.

Beyond these high-profile examples, there are cases that don’t make it to the public eye – where academics or administrators prefer to self-censor rather than become embroiled in a controversy.

An academic staff member at an Australian university, who would prefer to remain anonymous to protect their colleagues, said they have seen other university staff self-censor when lecturing to students who are Zooming in from China. “I’ve just recently been in meetings with other lecturers and they have expressed concern that content they have been teaching online via Zoom was being watched by, or reported to, the Chinese authorities. They are concerned that the content they are teaching will get themselves or the students in trouble. It’s usually expressed in the language of being worried about the students – but there is always an undertone of worrying about oneself, too.”

Others, including Kevin Carrico, think universities may have manufactured this fear of the financial plug being pulled. “Any actual punishment of universities for not toeing the line would actually just consist of a punishment of students from China – denying potentially hundreds of thousands of students an education, when they may have already paid for it. I don’t think that’s something that the Chinese government would ever actually do.”

In the wake of the UNSW case, Education Minister Dan Tehan has launched a review into the implementation of codes regarding free speech on campus. At the end of this month, parliament will vote on conducting a full parliamentary inquiry into Chinese Communist Party influence on Australian campuses – a move being pushed by Queensland MP Bob Katter, with support across the political spectrum. A full inquiry on the issue will be an important step in understanding this problem – especially the murky issue of self-censorship.

Fundamentally, Chinese international students who are pro-democracy and want to participate in Australia’s free and open society are taking a serious risk in speaking out. Our universities have a duty of care to them, as much as to any other student. “The university should do better to promote free speech on campus and not apologise or cave to those pro-CCP students,” says Mark. “University should provide a safe and open platform where all different opinions can be heard.”

* Not his real name.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Swayed in China".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Louisa Bochner is a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.