In this photo illustration from October 1, 2013, a computer mouse is lit by a projection of a Chinese flag. Tim Wimborne/File Photo/REUTERS
SYDNEY, 30 JUNE (Reuters) – According to Human Rights Watch, the high number of Chinese students in Australian universities has fostered an environment of self-censorship, with lecturers avoiding criticism of Beijing and Chinese students remaining mute for fear of persecution.
According to a report issued on Wednesday, Chinese authorities questioned some parents in mainland China about the actions of students in Australia, while Hong Kong police questioned a returning student about pro-democracy activities.
Self-censorship has intensified as colleges have embraced online courses during the COVID-19 epidemic, with Chinese students attending class from behind China’s internet censorship apparatus, according to the organisation.
The tendency jeopardised the academic independence of all students in the class, according to the report’s author, Sophie McNeill, who spoke to Reuters.
“It erodes Australia’s academic freedom,” she said.
In one example, an online course removed references to the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, she said.
Responding to the report, Universities Australia, a peak body for the sector, said universities are committed to academic freedom, and urged “any student or staff member to go straight to their university if they are being coerced or intimidated”.
Australia’s education minister Alan Tudge said the report raised “deeply concerning issues”, and the government would take advice from a parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.
“Any interference on our campuses by foreign entities cannot be tolerated,” he said in a statement.
In response to the report, the Chinese embassy in Canberra said “Human Rights Watch has decayed into a political tool for the West to attack and smear developing countries. It is always biased on China.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 40% of all international students in Australia were from China, or 10% of all university students. Almost a third of university sector revenue was generated from international student fees.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 students with “pro-democracy” views attending Australian universities, of whom 11 were from mainland China and 13 from Hong Kong. It also interviewed 22 academics.
The rights group verified three cases where family in China had been warned by police over a student’s activity in Australia.
“If you protest against CCP abroad, they will find people you love to make you pay. Even if you are in Australia,” a student not identified in the report told Human Rights Watch, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
The student, who said he had posted “anti-government” material on Twitter, said Chinese police had issued his parents with an official warning last year.
A Hong Kong student filed a case with Australian police when four guys in masks and speaking Mandarin came outside his house and pursued him with sticks after he spoke at a democracy protest. After the event, the student slept in his car and subsequently relocated. He is seeking refuge in Australia.
Threatening from patriotic Chinese classmates, such as publishing address data online, known as doxxing, and threats to denounce a student’s anti-China beliefs to the embassy, were more prevalent, according to the research.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than half of students who faced intimidation did not report it to their colleges.
“They believed their universities cared more about maintaining relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating the students who were supportive of the CCP,” said McNeill.
Half of academics interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they self-censored in the classroom, the report said.
“Academic after academic avoided discussing China in the classroom,” McNeill said.
Human Rights Watch said it wanted the Australian government to report annually on incidents of harassment and censorship, and for universities to classify students “reporting on” classmates or staff as harassment and grounds for disciplinary action.