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China intimidating students and faculty on Australian campuses: HRW

Hong Kong students commemorate the Tiananmen Square anniversary in 2020 (Photo credit: Studio Incendo/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

In its latest report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the Chinese government is carrying out intimidation of Chinese students and teachers on Australian campuses who are perceived as pro-democracy.

Besides bringing up the issue of harassment of students and faculty members, the human rights organisation also says that the Australian government has failed to protect the students from harassment by Pro-Beijing supporters and  China. HRW spoke with 24 pro-democracy students from China and Hong Kong as well as 22 academics at Australian universities.

The 102-page report, 'They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have’: How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities', says that China is carrying out surveillance of Chinese and Hong Kong students in Australian universities. The HRW investigation says: "Students are broadly aware that such surveillance takes place, leaving them fearful. Many alter their behavior and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from classmates, and being “reported on” to authorities back home".

“It was really heartbreaking how alone these students were and how vulnerable they are so far from home and feeling this lack of protection from the university,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher for HRW and the report’s author. “Universities really fear a backlash from Beijing, so rather than discuss these issues openly, they are swept under the carpet. But we think they no longer can be”, she added.

Protest banners on the University of Beijing gate days after the 4 June 1989 massacre at the Tiananmen Square (Photo credit: Daiwenchen/Wikimedia Commons)


Intimidating its own students by China is now new.

Giving an example, Dr Jagannath Panda, Research Fellow and Coordinator of the East Asia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi, says that on 21 March 2019 also HRW had published a 12-Code of Conduct (CoC) for colleges and universities to respond to the Chinese government's threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars, and educational institutions.

"The CoC was based on over a hundred interviews conducted between 2015 and 2018 in Australia, Canada, France, the US and the UK. HRW reported that Chinese authorities monitor and conduct surveillance diligently on Chinese teachers and students in these countries with Chinese diplomats often complaining about the hosting of ‘sensitive’ speakers like the Dalai Lama", says Panda.

He adds that Chinese students have described threats to families back home in response to what they said abroad and have a fear to participate vocally in classroom discussions for fear of being reported. "Censorship–both self and imposed–are major threats to students. China had in 2019 warned its students against studying in the US–this was at the time of the US-China trade war", says Panda.

"Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, linked the warning to the trade dispute. This led to discussions on Weibo–the Chinese social media platform–with students expressing their own concerns about going to the US, showing the strong hold that the State-media has in shaping public perception in China", says Panda.

China has made students pawns in its global disputes. If it is currently scaring its students in Australia after a downturn in its diplomatic relations with Canberra, it had earlier threatened its students in the US besides those who were planning to go to the USA for further studies.

The latest HRW report says that China threatened to jail a student who posted pro-democracy messages on Twitter in Australia, and confiscated the passport of another who expressed support for democracy before his class in Australia.

The threats from China have caused alarm among Chinese students across Australia. “These are all one-child families and they would so dearly love the freedom in Australia that other young people enjoy”, says McNeill. “But they can’t, because they live in fear of something happening to their parents”.

With education a major earner globally, Australian universities find themselves in a bind. They have made billions of dollars by inviting foreign students, including Chinese, to live and study on their campuses. With international education bringing in nearly $30 billion to Australia, China uses it as a stick to challenge countries and intimidate students.

All the students who were interviewed said they were afraid that their actions in Australia could prompt Chinese officials to punish or interrogate their families back home. Out of fear, most said they had censored their own words and activities in Australia.

“This is the reality. I come to Australia and still I’m not free”, a Chinese student told HRW.