Late last month, we witnessed violent protests at the University of Queensland, where international students from Hong Kong protesting in favour of secession were attacked by pro-Chinese Communist Party international students.
In the days following these protests, Hong Kong students reported repeated cases of intimidation and surveillance, with several too afraid to show their faces in public.
As noted on Monday, the response from the University of Queensland was…ahem…modest. Instead of reprimanding the offending Chinese students it instead merely stated that it expected staff and students to “express their views in a lawful and respectful manner, and in accordance with the policies and values of the university”.
The reasons for the weak-kneed response are obvious and relate purely to money.
First and foremost, the University of Queensland is highly dependent on international student enrolments, the majority of whom originate from China.
According to the Department of Education, there were around 15,400 international students enrolled at the University of Queensland in 2017, comprising around 30% of total students enrolments. This is a sharp increase on the 7,000 international students enrolled at the university in 2007, accounting for 18% of total student enrolments (see next chart).
Second, the University of Queensland is one of nine Australian universities that operates a China-backed Confucius Institute on campus. These institutes are funded and overseen by the Hanban, which is a fully funded subsidiary of China’s Ministry of Education. Their formal mission is to promote Chinese language and culture, and in doing so they provide an uncritical view of Chinese society.
The University of Queensland has also signed an agreement to “accept the assessment of the [Chinese] Headquarters on the teaching quality” at its Confucius Institute.
Finally, the University of Queensland took the extraordinary measure of appointing current Brisbane Chinese consul-general, Xu Jie, as an adjunct professor of language and culture at the University until December 2021. Alarmingly, Xu Jie’s consulate general in Brisbane praised the Chinese counter-protesters for their “acts of patriotism” against the Hong Kong secessionists.
If the experience at the University of Queensland was an isolated event, there might not be too much to worry about. However, similar violent protests have also taken place at the University of Auckland, prompting similar endorsement from China’s consulate general:
China’s consulate general in Auckland on Thursday (Aug 1) praised the “spontaneous patriotism” of pro-Beijing students who reportedly manhandled a Hong Kong-supporting protester on a university campus in New Zealand’s largest city.
In a statement, the Chinese mission also criticised pro-Hong Kong democracy activists in New Zealand for using “so-called freedom of expression” to spread falsehoods.
The statement, which attracted criticism from New Zealand lawmakers and academics, was issued after a scuffle on Monday at a University of Auckland demonstration supporting democracy in Hong Kong.
Video of the incident posted online shows a group of men, reportedly mainland Chinese, surrounding a female protester and heckling her before pushing her to the ground.
The consulate general in Auckland accused the protesters of “demonising” China and promoting secessionism for Hong Kong.
“The consulate general expresses its appreciation to the (pro-Beijing) students for their spontaneous patriotism, and opposes any form of secessionism,” it said.
It also condemned the protesters, saying they were “distorting the factual situation in Hong Kong under the pretext of so-called freedom of expression”.
The ScoMo Government is also now concerned that Chinese international students are threatening democratic freedoms:
“The Australian government expects our universities to have robust mechanisms in place to ensure international education partnerships comply with Australian laws, education quality standards and academic freedoms,” education minister Dan Tehan said.
“I will be meeting with vice-chancellors in early August and have placed this issue on the agenda for that meeting.”
Tehan added that the Attorney-General, who has been responsible for the foreign influence laws, had asked his department to specifically examine arrangements to ensure compliance with the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
In a statement, Universities Australia said it was also looking into its members’ compliance after amendments were made in April.
“In line with Australian Government policy, our nation’s universities are looking carefully at their agreements with foreign entities to ensure they comply with the new laws.”
“Australia’s universities also strongly uphold their institutional autonomy and control of curriculum and standards.”
Everybody should be concerned that Chinese diplomats have explicitly encouraged and praised violence by Chinese international students towards those from Hong Kong who are only defending their own democracy. This is against Australia’s (and New Zealand’s) laws and values, particularly with regard to the right to free speech and peaceful protest.
Alas, with the situation in Hong Kong deteriorating, we can probably expect worsening conflicts on Australian campuses.
Universities would be wise to prepare sterner responses to enforce Australian freedoms and must begin to extract themselves from their entanglements with Communist Party tyranny.
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