Australia acts to prevent foreign interference in unis

Police separating pro-Beijing students and pro-Hong Kong protesters outside the University of South Australia in Adelaide earlier this month.
Police separating pro-Beijing students and pro-Hong Kong protesters outside the University of South Australia in Adelaide earlier this month.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY • Australia moved to counter foreign interference at its universities yesterday, establishing a task force to help protect sensitive research, cyber defences and free speech.

With concern growing about China's clout on campuses in the country, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced more intensive consultation between the schools and government officials - including spy agencies.

The group will focus on bolstering cyber defences, protecting sensitive intellectual property and making sure collaboration with foreign individuals or organisations does not hurt Australia's national interests.

Mr Tehan stressed the need to strike a balance between "national interest" and the universities' "freedom to pursue research and collaboration that expands our knowledge and leads to life-improving innovations".

That balance has been called into question by a series of hacks, controversial donations and incidents of on-campus intimidation linked to Beijing.

A data breach at Australian National University last year exposed sensitive staff and student data going back two decades.

Australian universities have taken tens of millions of dollars from Beijing to establish "Confucius Institutes" that steer clear of issues damaging to China's ruling Communist Party.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said yesterday that talk of "so-called Chinese infiltration of Australia and related statements are completely baseless and made out of ill intention".

"Politicising educational cooperation and setting obstacles will do no good to either side and will not gain any popularity," he said.

 
 

The ongoing unrest in Hong Kong has also been mirrored on campuses across Australia, with pro-democracy students intimidated by pro-Beijing Chinese student groups and their private information published online.

"The test of our commitment to free speech is whether we are willing to tolerate the speech of others," Mr Tehan said, "especially those with whom we most disagree".

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2019, with the headline 'Australia acts to prevent foreign interference in unis'. Print Edition | Subscribe