‘Cultural sensitivity’ can be a cover for Chinese propaganda in Australian universities

I started the [Twitter] account because I was in Australia. I thought it was safe here. I thought they wouldn’t be able to trace it back to me.

In March 2020 the local police department contacted my parents and asked my parents to come to the police station and issued an official warning and they told me to “shut the [expletive] up” and that I will pay a very heavy price if I come back home.

They said I must shut down my Twitter, stop spreading anti-government messages and if I don’t cooperate, they may charge me with a crime if I ever come back home. They said I would face a minimum three years. They didn’t call me. Just contacted my parents.

So far, it’s ok. I deleted the Twitter account. Because I’m worried about my parents.

These are the words of Li Wei, a student from mainland China who came to study at an Australian university in 2019. He began his Twitter account under a pseudonym to avoid repercussions when criticising the Chinese Communist Party. Wei quickly garnered several thousand followers, but the CCP found him out.

This and other harrowing stories have come to light with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch, a large nonprofit organisation that conducts human rights research and advocacy. Entitled How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities, the report gives voice to students and academics who feel forced to self-censor their views about the human rights abuses of the communist regime in China.

Almost 160,000 students from China were enrolled in Australian universities in 2020, making up 38 percent of our nation’s onshore international students, and around 10 percent of the entire student population at Australian universities. Though border restrictions have resulted in an overall drop in student numbers since 2020, the proportion of students from China has actually increased over the same period, to 39 percent of our international cohort.

“I have to censor myself. This is the reality. I come to Australia and still I’m not free,” says student Lei Chen (a pseudonym). In the words of one academic, “You have to choose your words very carefully. I look at my university and see the place is absolutely hooked on Chinese foreign student money.”

The report collates interviews with dozens of pro-democracy students from Hong Kong and mainland China. The students spoke of “direct harassment and intimidation from Chinese classmates — including threats of physical violence, being reported on to Chinese authorities back home, [and] being doxed online”.

According to the report, the Chinese government “maintains surveillance of Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students in Australian universities”. Human Rights Watch verified three cases in which the China-based families of students were visited by police because of their conduct in Australia. These realities have contributed to a climate of fear among Chinese students studying abroad in Australia:

Students said the fear of fellow students reporting on them to the Chinese consulate or embassy and the potential impact on loved ones in China led to stress, anxiety, and affected their daily activities… It was a constant concern that had to be evaluated before decisions were made of what to say, what they could attend, and even with whom they were friends.

The study notes that most Chinese students aren’t particularly interested in political disputes, and the worst cases of abuse and intimidation are not ubiquitous. Even so, the campaign is being “carried out by a small but highly motivated and vocal minority who have the potential to influence many others.”

“This atmosphere of fear has worsened in recent years,” the report details, “with free speech and academic freedom increasingly under threat”. Australian academics — 22 of whom were also interviewed for the study — are likewise impacted by the global tentacles of China’s authoritarianism:

More than half of faculty interviewed, selected because they are from or specialise in China studies, or teach a large number of PRC students, said they practiced regular self-censorship while talking about China.

This is part of a pattern in which:

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 question for Australians — and Australian authorities — is how on earth we have let it come to this. Though it is taking place in the realm of ideas and propaganda, the struggle detailed by Human Rights Watch is a geopolitical one.

These events are a stark reminder that when we elevate cultural sensitivity (otherwise known as “not offending”) as a pinnacle virtue in our culture, it doesn’t just lead to less hurt feelings: it also allows room for totalitarian ideology to run roughshod over all other ideas.

Chinese students have travelled to Australia to receive an Australian education, not a Chinese one. In many cases, what they were searching out is an academic freedom not afforded to them back at home. But they are encountering similar forms of censorship here.

The plight of Chinese students in Australia is a reminder that the digital world has changed the hue of geopolitics. Propaganda and surveillance are no longer restricted to just radios and airplanes. Now they reach into our very pockets and through the screens we scroll for hours a day.

This problem also reminds us that we need to recover our moral courage, and compass. Some things are objectively evil. That the Chinese Communist Party has killed more human beings than anybody else in history — 50 million and counting — should be able to be mentioned in Australian university lecture halls without fear of repercussion.

“Many students expressed disappointment and dismay that Australian universities were not doing enough to protect them and their academic freedom,” the report lamented.

It’s time for the universities — and the Australian government - to stand up and be counted.


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