FRAN MARTIN. Overstating Chinese influence in Australian universities

Both Australia’s national government and its security agency ASIO have expressed concerns over the influence that the Chinese government exerts on Chinese student groups studying at Australian universities. They have also accused Beijing of using those groups to spy on Chinese students in Australia.

Ministers, security specialists and the media have contributed to a rising chorus of questions over the implications of foreign interference for Australian universities. Are these students’ actions remotely controlled by the Chinese embassy or groups such as the United Front? Are they spying on each other? Does the expression of their opinions imperil freedom of speech in Australian universities?

Many of these reports appear to be based on thin research and significantly overstate their case. A five-year study of the social experiences of a group of 50 Chinese women at eight universities across Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney paints a different picture.

The overwhelming response of these participants has been incredulity at the extreme nature of the claims about their motives and influence and disappointment at the way media reports depict them as a homogeneous group lacking the power of independent thought. Some also expressed concern that such claims may further entrench the anti-Chinese prejudice that already exists within Australian society, as well as indignation at the double standard implied in criticisms of them.

Within this group of 50 students, none reported any contact with organs of the Chinese government while studying in Australia except for a single student on a Chinese government scholarship who attends occasional non-political functions at the Melbourne Consulate. One participant studying in Canberra says that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association there does have clear and public links with the Chinese embassy, but this does not seem to be the case in any other cities.

Depicting ordinary Chinese students as a threat to freedom of speech in Australian universities (as did Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in her recent blunt warning to them) runs a number of significant risks. It glosses over the diversity of these students’ views and risks encouraging university teachers to mistrust their students. This presents the danger that every Chinese student whom lecturers encounter is then viewed as an incipient national threat. It is not accurate, not credible and not helpful.

While a handful of Chinese students have aired criticisms of Australian lecturers for their framing of geopolitical issues, there are no reported cases in which a Chinese student has actually attempted to silence alternative views in the classroom.

In mid-October, a Melbourne-based WeChat public news account published a shortened translation of the foreign minister’s allegations against Chinese students. The reader comments focus on the logical contradiction in her warning. The most ‘up-voted comment’ states with a laughing emoji: ‘We respect their values and free speech. So when we state our own opinions, why don’t they respect that? Total double standard’. Scores more comments continue in a similar vein.

The participants in the above study had very diverse views on issues like Chinese nationalism, Hong Kong’s democracy movement, the Chinese government and the CCP. It is common for them to criticise aspects of Chinese government policy and practice in informal conversations.

In the current media environment where student Yang Shuping in the United States found her family back in China viciously attacked when she made public statements perceived as pro-US and anti-Chinese, one participant noted that a certain level of self-surveillance when speaking in public forums becomes an inbuilt reflex. But to all of the students in the study, the idea that their classmates are acting as CCP spies is far-fetched.

Some students from the Chinese mainland have made strong friendships with classmates from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau — this is partly the case because they find that these students welcome their friendship far more readily than do their Australian-born peers. A recent article looks at how some students, through these friendships, develop an increasingly reflexive understanding of the multiplicity and complexity of Chinese identity and geopolitics.

So how should lecturers in Australia respond to the complexities of teaching to a trans-national, trans-cultural classroom where a diversity of opinion is the norm?

It is worth remembering that Australian educators are already good at this. In arts faculties across Australian universities, it is routine to find lecturers undertaking the delicate balancing act of leading tutorial discussions involving students with different political viewpoints — students range from members of conservative political parties to Trotskyites, from feminists to anti-feminists, from neo-conservatives to anarcho-syndicalists and from religious students to radical queer activists.

Lecturers know well that it is not their job to insist upon their own personal view or silence the views of any student, but rather to seek the facilitation of reasoned debate and to allow the opinions of all students to be heard and be accorded equal respect. Ideally, this models ethical engagement, develops critical thinking and enriches all participants’ understanding of complex issues.

Educators have a choice. If Chinese students are engaged seriously, it will enable inter-cultural learning as a valued part of our classroom conversations. On the other hand, if educators take a suspicious and antagonistic stance toward them by simply shutting down the expression of challenging views, they run the risk of entrenching existing divisions in Australian society.

Fran Martin is Reader in Cultural Studies and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Melbourne University.

This article first appeared in the East Asia Forum of Melbourne University.

print
This entry was posted in Asia, Education, International Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to FRAN MARTIN. Overstating Chinese influence in Australian universities

  1. With around 150,000 Chinese students in Australia a study of 50 women from eight unis is hardly a counter to the well-reported examples of Chinese Government influence. However there does appear to be a worrying clash of attitudes that needs addressing – See Professor Nick Bisley’s commentary: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-06/mistrust-of-australia-is-growing-in-china/9228664

  2. tasi timor says:

    Indonesia did the same sort of thing during the New Order. Some Australian academics, public servants and politicians caved, most notably and shamefully CLP politicians in Darwin. When an Indonesian magazine carried a story sourced from Australia about a corrupt Consul General in Perth, the Consulate summoned suspected student activists and grilled them in an attempt to find the source. They needn’t have bothered – the source was the West Australian newspaper.

  3. paul frijters says:

    I taught Chinese economics for several years. The lecture rooms were packed full when I talked about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: lots of Chinese students who didn’t take my course came to hear those bits. You could hear a pin drop as I was explaining how Mao was such a disaster and how the post-Mao system was designed to keep another Mao from power. The commissar at the front who would try to keep me from saying obvious things was not pleased!

    As to the rest, well … the Chinese embassy clearly hasn’t yet figured out how to buy influence in Australian politics. How often must they be slapped down before they get it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *