China pressure ‘undermining Australian universities’, report says

image copyrightGetty Imagesimage captionA new report says pro-democracy Chinese students fear speaking freely in Australia

Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia fear punishment for their family back home if they speak out on sensitive issues, a new report says.

Human Rights Watch found such students feel surveilled in Australia, leading many to self-censor in classrooms.

Academics teaching China courses in the country say they have also felt pressure to censor themselves.

The rights group said the perceived pressure was undermining the academic freedom of Australian universities.

Australia's higher education system is heavily reliant on fee-paying Chinese students, which accounted in pre-Covid times for about 40% of all international students in the country.

There are currently about 160,000 Chinese students are enrolled in Australian universities.

There has been growing concern about China's influence on local campuses in recent years, following a deterioration in relations between the two nations.

'Culture of self-censorship'

Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed nearly 50 students and academics in Australia and found an "atmosphere of fear" that had worsened in recent years.

Researchers said they had confirmed three cases where a student's activities in Australia had prompted police in China to visit or get in contact with their families there over their actions.

In one case, Chinese authorities also threatened a student with jail after they opened a Twitter account in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages.

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Many pro-democracy students also said they feared fellow students reporting on them to Chinese authorities.

"Fear that what they did in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their parents back home weighed heavily on the minds of every pro-democracy student interviewed," said the report.

Its author, Sophie McNeill, said university administrators were "failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China".

media captionChinese students in Australia have previously complained to their teachers about how their country is portrayed

Tutors and lecturers have also reported facing increased pressure, the report says. HRW interviewed 22 academics at Australian universities who teach China studies or Chinese students.

More than half of those interviewed practiced regular self-censorship when talking about China, Ms McNeill found.

Some reported that on a few occasions, they had also experienced censorship from university management. Examples included instances where they were asked not to discuss China publicly or were deterred from holding China-related events.

The report quotes one unidentified academic who refused officials' request for a "sanitised" version of his Chinese Studies unit when teaching online during the pandemic to students based in China.

'Reports of intimidation and coercion'

For a number of years now, Australia has been debating the reach of China's alleged interference on campuses.

In the past Chinese authorities and media outlets have dismissed such concerns as smears, and the country's ambassador described as "groundless" allegations that Chinese students in Australia were being monitored for dissident behaviour.

In 2019, the Australian government set up a taskforce and new guidelines for universities to combat what it described as "unprecedented levels" of foreign interference.

Scrutiny has focused on research collaborations between Australian and Chinese universities – as well as the presence of Confucius Institutes, Chinese language and cultural centres funded by the Chinese government – on Australian campuses.

A recent parliamentary inquiry has examined foreign interference in the university sector. It is due to report in July.

Universities Australia, a representative group of the nation's top institutions, told the inquiry in March that universities were aware of "confronting reports of intimidation and coercion of students".

"This is unacceptable conduct… the safety and security of students and their right to free expression and debate is fundamental to every university," said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

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