Chinese students in Australia are afraid to speak out on politically sensitive issues because of potential repercussions for relatives back home, Human Rights Watch told an Australian parliamentary inquiry on Thursday last week.
The group said that its ongoing research into academic freedom in Australia had found anxiety and loneliness among Chinese students, with some engaging in self-censorship to avoid a backlash from Beijing.
Addressing an Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into foreign interference in the university sector, Sophie McNeill, a researcher for the advocacy group, said that there was “a very deep fear of being watched, of being reported on.”
Illustration: Mountain People
McNeill, a former journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corp who has been leading the research project, said that the group had so far conducted about 50 interviews with students from Hong Kong and mainland China.
Students who had experienced harassment and intimidation generally did not report this to the universities, because they “didn’t feel that universities could do anything or that they didn’t care,” she said.
Students also expressed “a lot of anxiety [as] they didn’t know where to turn. They felt very lonely, very unsupported,” McNeill said.
Some students indicated that they never said anything in class because they believed that they could not freely express themselves, she said.
“All these very young people who said that their greatest fear was their parents being visited back in China because of something they said or did or participated in while they were in Australia,” McNeill told the committee.
“While that didn’t happen to a huge number of people, we verified at least four cases where that did happen. So of course when that happens, it goes along the grapevine — everyone is really worried about that happening,” she said. “A lot of the students we interviewed expressed quite a lot of surprise that they’d come all the way here to only still feel that they lived in a system similar to what they were living in under the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] in China.”
McNeill said that she was aware of a student who had attended a Hong Kong democracy protest later receiving a message on Facebook from someone who participated in a counterprotest.
The message threatened to report the student to a Chinese consulate, McNeill added.
In addition to students, the researchers had interviewed more than 25 academics, “who talked about how much they struggle to just talk about China these days in universities,” she said.
McNeill said that an academic at a university in Victoria state was recently “doxxed” — had her personal information shared online — after telling a student that it was unacceptable for them to send a group e-mail reprimanding a classmate for describing Taiwan as their place of origin — rather than recognizing it as part of China.
Academics feared “being recorded by their students, doxxed if they say something controversial about Hong Kong or Xinjiang, and that could risk perhaps family back home in China if they’re of Chinese background, or it could endanger their ability to travel to China in the future,” McNeill said.
Elaine Pearson, the group’s Australia director, told the inquiry that some Australian government departments and universities appeared reluctant to acknowledge that China was the “one government that is behaving in this way, and that is orchestrating a lot of these threats and intimidation faced by students from China.”
Pearson said that while other governments might raise concerns about activity on Australian campuses — for example, the Indonesian government might seek the cancelation of a West Papua protest — “you don’t see universities caving to the demands of those other governments in the way that they do cave to the demands of the Chinese government.”
“I mean you had the Dalai Lama event moved off Sydney University’s campus to be held somewhere else,” Pearson said, linking it to the academic sector’s reliance on revenue from Chinese students.
Pearson, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales, said that she had been disappointed about the handling of an incident last year when comments she made criticizing Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong were initially taken down by the university after a backlash.
Drew Pavlou, a student activist who was suspended by the University of Queensland after counterprotesters clashed with him in 2019, told the inquiry that he believed he was targeted for political reasons to protect the university’s relationship with China.
“The most troubling part about my experience was the kind of stifling effect it has had on free speech in our universities,” Pavlou said.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess said that his organization did not concern itself with peaceful protests, but “we would be concerned, however, if a foreign government is active behind the scenes trying to covertly shut down free expression.”
“Some foreign governments — and it’s more than one — care about what their students get up to on campus, and in some cases they might use or want to use their students to counter certain things that are being said on campus as students go about their free speech, or universities and the curriculum they’re teaching might be a problem for certain nation states,” Burgess told the inquiry.
“One country, in particular, is highly active, but they are not alone in that endeavor,” he added, without naming the country.
Asked whether he believed that foreign governments were working through student societies to covertly advance their interests, Burgess said that he would not want answer that in a public forum.
Burgess backed the need for universities to be given more clarity about which research or technologies the Chinese government considered particularly sensitive.
There was currently “some ambiguity there at this stage, which is unhelpful to researchers, students and research organizations,” he said.
Chinese officials have previously denied interfering in Australia’s internal affairs.
Wang Xining (王晰寧), deputy head of the Chinese embassy in Australia, last year said that there was a big difference between foreign interference and foreign influence, and that Australia would not enjoy affluence, cultural diversity and intellectual richness “without accepting some foreign influence.”
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