Australia raises concerns as report warns of Chinese surveillance of university students

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 40 per cent of all international students in Australia were from China.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 40 per cent of all international students in Australia were from China.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Chinese students at universities in Australia have been harassed, intimidated and subject to surveillance by pro-Beijing supporters and Chinese authorities, according to a new report that was described as “deeply concerning” by the Australian government.

The report, released on Wednesday (June 30) by Human Rights Watch, found that Chinese and Hong Kong students at Australian universities have been threatened, abused and targeted on social media for speaking out about democracy and “sensitive” subjects such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang or Tibet.

In some cases, Chinese authorities visited students’ families in China to discuss the student’s activities. One student was threatened with jail after posting pro-democracy messages on Twitter, another’s passport was confiscated after returning home.

A Chinese student, who was not named, told Human Rights Watch: “I have to censor myself. This is the reality - I come to Australia and still I’m not free.”

A Hong Kong student at the University of Queensland told The Australian newspaper on Tuesday that she had been abused regularly on campus over her support for democracy.

“When I have been involved in pro-democracy protests on campus, we have been surrounded by Chinese nationalist students or people brought in by the Chinese embassy,” said the student, who was not named.

“I have had my photo taken and put up on Chinese social media sites. They call us separatists and say we betray the country.”

Australia is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese students, with about 160,000 Chinese students reportedly enrolled at universities in Australia in 2020.

Despite deteriorating ties between Australia and China in recent years, opinion surveys show Chinese students are still keen to study in Australia.

The country was ranked the third-most popular destination for studying abroad after Britain and Japan in a recent survey of students by Australian-based education platform CatEight.com.

But there have been growing concerns about efforts by Beijing and pro-China supporters to influence activities and debate on campuses, and that universities have been reluctant to properly combat efforts to stifle pro-democracy sentiment.

“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,” said the report’s author, Ms Sophie McNeill, in a statement. 

“The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”

But the universities insist they are working to address interference on campus.

“Universities just can’t deal with this all by themselves. It has to be a matter dealt with at a government level, as well as institution level,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson told ABC News.

The federal government has moved to counter interference at universities following repeated warnings by intelligence officials.

The concerns have led to a parliamentary inquiry into the national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector. The inquiry is also examining whether research collaborations with foreign scientists pose security threats. The committee is due to present its report to the federal government in the coming weeks.

The Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with 24 pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and with 22 academics, called on the federal government to publish an annual report documenting incidents of harassment and censorship and measures by universities to counter these threats. 

It said universities and vice-chancellors should alert students that reporting on the activities of fellow students or staff to embassies could result in disciplinary action.

Education Minister Alan Tudge said he was considering the report and will take further advice from Australia’s intelligence agencies.
“There are deeply concerning issues raised in the Human Rights Watch report on foreign interference on campuses,” he said.
“Any interference by foreign entities at universities cannot be tolerated.”

The Chinese Embassy in Australia dismissed the report’s findings as “rubbish”, accusing Human Rights Watch of being biased against China.