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International relations

China's long arm squeezes Australia academic freedom: rights group

Human Rights Watch says students face harassment, fear being reported to Beijing

The University of Sydney campus: Human Rights Watch warns the Chinese government is encroaching on academic freedom in Australia.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- A new report contends that Chinese authorities are threatening academic freedom thousands of kilometers away in Australia, quoting one student from mainland China as saying: "I have to censor myself. This is the reality. I come to Australia and still I'm not free."

U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, which released the report late on Tuesday, conducted interviews with 48 students and academics between last September and April. The self-censoring student, identified only by the pseudonym Lei Chen, was one of 24 young "pro-democratic" interviewees from the mainland and Hong Kong.

Over half of them said they have experienced "direct harassment and intimidation from fellow classmates from China," including physical violence, threats to be reported to Chinese authorities back home, and being doxed online.

The study comes as Australia and China continually spar over trade, human rights and security issues. Canberra has been outspoken about resisting "coercion" and has actively sought to counter alleged Chinese political interference through legislation and other moves.

But Human Rights Watch argues there has been "little discussion" about protecting university students and faculty members from harassment, intimidation and self-censorship on campus, compared to their peers in other democracies such as the U.K. and the U.S. At the same time, the group takes universities themselves to task.

"Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China," Sophie McNeill, the watchdog's Australia researcher who authored the report, said in a press statement.

One powerful disincentive to taking action is likely financial. "Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies," she added.

The report notes that 28% of the 430,000 students enrolled in Australia's higher education institutions in 2017 were from abroad. In 2019, international students paid over 17 billion Australian dollars ($13 billion) in tuition, while 27% of schools' total operating revenue was derived from these students -- vital income at a time when federal government funding for universities was being cut back.

Among all international students on the country's campuses, about 40% were from China, making up approximately 10% of the entire student body. Chinese students are visible in other Western democracies as well, but Australia's ratio stands out compared with 6% in the U.K., 3% in Canada and 2% in the U.S.

The students who told Human Rights Watch that they were targeted believe certain Chinese peers "identified them as critical of the Chinese Communist Party, expressing support for democracy in Hong Kong or China, or if they attended a protest in support of Hong Kong democracy."

Speaking at an online news conference on Wednesday, McNeil said, "What's so alarming is that it's not just a [feeling] of threat, but we actually have examples of these threats being followed through and carried out." She noted three cases in which students' family members in China were either visited or questioned by authorities because of what those students had done in Australia.

However, most students who consider themselves to be pro-democratic chose not to report harassment and intimidation to their schools. They said they believed the authorities would not take their cases seriously or feared "their university was sympathetic to pro-Beijing Chinese students only."

Only one among the 24 pro-democracy students interviewed said their university had told them where and how to file a report if they experienced pressure and threats.

Human Rights Watch also approached students who belong to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has formal links to the Chinese Embassy and consulates. Out of the 23 CSSA chapters in Australia that were contacted, only two students agreed to be interviewed.

One of them was quoted as saying: "Our CSSA did get subsidized by the China Consulate. If we paid something, then we can ask the embassy to reimburse those receipts."

Another, identified as Jian, also said the CSSA chapter he belongs to was "heavily supported" by the Chinese Consulate.

Jian said he stood "firm with our government and our country" when posters were put on his campus supporting democracy in Hong Kong. He took part in counter-protests, explaining, "Of course we feel more patriotic because we are trying to defend our group that we belong to."

In addition, Human Rights Watch spoke with 22 academics who either teach students from China or Hong Kong, or have related expertise. They indicated feeling pressure, too. One academic, who was identified only as T, was quoted in the report: "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."

Financial considerations also play a big role in the CSSA's appeal, according to one of the academics. The individual, who has taught China studies for over two decades, told Human Rights Watch that a good part of the student welfare budget has being footed by CSSA.

"Universities are happy to outsource that stuff, the pastoral care stuff," the academic said. "They see it as a way to reduce costs in that area."

Still, some Australian schools are attempting to rectify the situation, drawing on practices elsewhere.

One pro-democracy Chinese student was relieved not to have to express her views on China in a classroom setting. Instead, she was only required to submit a paper anonymously.

Another student from mainland China felt more at ease after the lecturer of his Chinese politics class stated that the sessions would not be recorded.

Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, told reporters the government has been paying attention to "foreign interference in the higher education sector" but that it appears to be "quite narrowly focused" on topics such as problematic research partnerships with Chinese entities -- not the on-campus experience.

"We would like the university sector as a whole to adopt standard procedures to address these threats to academic freedom," Pearson said.

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