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Overstating Chinese influence in Australian universities

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School of Business graduates toss their hats into the air for family members to take pictures outside the main building at the University of Sydney in Australia, 22 April 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed).

In Brief

Both Australia’s national government and its security agency ASIO have expressed concerns over the influence that the Chinese government exerts on Chinese student groups studying at Australian universities. They have also accused Beijing of using those groups to spy on Chinese students in Australia.


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Ministers, security specialists and the media have contributed to a rising chorus of questions over the implications of foreign interference for Australian universities. Are these students’ actions remotely controlled by the Chinese embassy or groups such as the United Front? Are they spying on each other? Does the expression of their opinions imperil freedom of speech in Australian universities?

Many of these reports appear to be based on thin research and significantly overstate their case. A five-year study of the social experiences of a group of 50 Chinese women at eight universities across Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney paints a different picture.

The overwhelming response of these participants has been incredulity at the extreme nature of the claims about their motives and influence and disappointment at the way media reports depict them as a homogeneous group lacking the power of independent thought. Some also expressed concern that such claims may further entrench the anti-Chinese prejudice that already exists within Australian society, as well as indignation at the double standard implied in criticisms of them.

Within this group of 50 students, none reported any contact with organs of the Chinese government while studying in Australia except for a single student on a Chinese government scholarship who attends occasional non-political functions at the Melbourne Consulate. One participant studying in Canberra says that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association there does have clear and public links with the Chinese embassy, but this does not seem to be the case in any other cities.

Depicting ordinary Chinese students as a threat to freedom of speech in Australian universities (as did Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in her recent blunt warning to them) runs a number of significant risks. It glosses over the diversity of these students’ views and risks encouraging university teachers to mistrust their students. This presents the danger that every Chinese student whom lecturers encounter is then viewed as an incipient national threat. It is not accurate, not credible and not helpful.

While a handful of Chinese students have aired criticisms of Australian lecturers for their framing of geopolitical issues, there are no reported cases in which a Chinese student has actually attempted to silence alternative views in the classroom.

In mid-October, a Melbourne-based WeChat public news account published a shortened translation of the foreign minister’s allegations against Chinese students. The reader comments focus on the logical contradiction in her warning. The most ‘up-voted comment’ states with a laughing emoji: ‘We respect their values and free speech. So when we state our own opinions, why don’t they respect that? Total double standard’. Scores more comments continue in a similar vein.

The participants in the above study had very diverse views on issues like Chinese nationalism, Hong Kong’s democracy movement, the Chinese government and the CCP. It is common for them to criticise aspects of Chinese government policy and practice in informal conversations.

In the current media environment where student Yang Shuping in the United States found her family back in China viciously attacked when she made public statements perceived as pro-US and anti-Chinese, one participant noted that a certain level of self-surveillance when speaking in public forums becomes an inbuilt reflex. But to all of the students in the study, the idea that their classmates are acting as CCP spies is far-fetched.

Some students from the Chinese mainland have made strong friendships with classmates from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau — this is partly the case because they find that these students welcome their friendship far more readily than do their Australian-born peers. A recent article looks at how some students, through these friendships, develop an increasingly reflexive understanding of the multiplicity and complexity of Chinese identity and geopolitics.

So how should lecturers in Australia respond to the complexities of teaching to a trans-national, trans-cultural classroom where a diversity of opinion is the norm?

It is worth remembering that Australian educators are already good at this. In arts faculties across Australian universities, it is routine to find lecturers undertaking the delicate balancing act of leading tutorial discussions involving students with different political viewpoints — students range from members of conservative political parties to Trotskyites, from feminists to anti-feminists, from neo-conservatives to anarcho-syndicalists and from religious students to radical queer activists.

Lecturers know well that it is not their job to insist upon their own personal view or silence the views of any student, but rather to seek the facilitation of reasoned debate and to allow the opinions of all students to be heard and be accorded equal respect. Ideally, this models ethical engagement, develops critical thinking and enriches all participants’ understanding of complex issues.

Educators have a choice. If Chinese students are engaged seriously, it will enable inter-cultural learning as a valued part of our classroom conversations. On the other hand, if educators take a suspicious and antagonistic stance toward them by simply shutting down the expression of challenging views, they run the risk of entrenching existing divisions in Australian society.

Fran Martin is Reader in Cultural Studies and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Melbourne University.

3 responses to “Overstating Chinese influence in Australian universities”

  1. Democracy works through public discussion and good reasoning. In a global democracy, peoples from different nations/traditions/civilisations should be able to engage in public discussion and examine each other’s values and goals under reasoned scrutiny. It would be a missed opportunity in the practice of global democracy if Australian universities did not facilitate public discussion and reasoned scrutiny. In particular, Australian universities could: (a) help international students develop the capability to engage in public reasoning in a respectful manner; and (b) encourage all students & academics (including Australians) to re-examine their own values and goals under reasoned scrutiny.

  2. If ASIO is involved it is usually “after the Horse has bolted”. This must have been happening for some time: maybe the their US masters at NSA pointed the problem out to them?

    Anyway this is just ASIO trying to cleanup the mess but you would have thought there are better and more subtle ways of doing it.

  3. As I understand it, it all started with some criticism of lecturers referring to Taiwan as an independent country. This is pure ignorance and not history. Neither is it a geopolitical discussion. The comments seems to focus on unreasonable or disrespect of the students instead of what I feel are points of fact which the lecturer should retract. Instead it turned out into a full scale Chinese influence crisis. If Australians promote a full and open discussion, certainly what the Chinese students did indicate a very strong point that while Australians may not agree, it reflects the view of the Chinese. It has nothing to do with values or free speech. In fact the over-reaction has the opposite effect. With the Chinese clam up about their views or they can go home.

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