Australian universities and the anxiety of Chinese influence

Jul 4, 2021

Sometime in 2010, a graduate journalism student from China asked to meet with me. She needed to interview at least two people for one of her assignments, and her chosen topic was the media in China and freedom of expression. She told me that she had already spoken with the well-known Australian writer Frank Moorhouse about his decision not to visit China as a protest against China’s treatment of political dissident Liu Xiaobo. Moreover, now she wanted to talk to me, too.

When I met her, she told me that in her interview with Moorhouse, she had asked him if he had any advice for her when she went back to China. He advised her to fight for freedom of expression and democracy, or something along those lines. She then put the same question to me.

I thought about this for a minute, and then told her that I disagreed with Frank Moorhouse. I said I was not sure whether that would produce the best outcome for her. I asked her if she was a full-fee-paying student, and she said that she was. I then asked her to tell me what she wanted to get out of her educational experience, assuming that we all wanted value for our money. She did not seem to have a ready answer, so I offered my opinion.

I said that one important aim might be to understand how and why the media in Australia and China operate so differently from each other. I suggested to her that the Australian media also work within certain constraints and ideological agendas, and that she should use her time here to develop a critical language to describe and explain the differences, similarities, and even connections between the two systems. Then, she could go back to China and decide what she could do with what she had learned in Australia.

I still remember the incomprehension on this student’s face; what I was saying was obviously very different from what she had expected. She had expected me to agree with Moorhouse. Much as I admire Moorhouse’s writing, I feel that in this case he gave the student the ‘wrong’ advice, if we can still use such a judgemental term. To start with, if the student were to act on his advice, she might not last very long in her job; and worse still, she may put herself at great risk.

I was somewhat troubled by the fact that the student went away with such conflicting messages. Moreover, as it turns out, I was not the only person troubled by this encounter. A few months later, I came across an article written by Frank Moorhouse in The Australian newspaper entitled “Soft Power and Hard Labour,” in which the last section reads:

Following my withdrawal from this year’s China tour I was interviewed by a young Chinese student studying journalism here and she asked me what my advice would be on freedom of expression to Chinese journalism students studying here and who will be returning to China.

I found it a tough question, perhaps the toughest question I have ever been asked. I thought about my answer overnight and the next day said to her that my advice … for young Chinese journalists and writers was this: to research and study the freedom of expression risks faced by writers in China; to assess and evaluate those risks; to compare those risks with those in other countries; to write about the risks; and then to take risks. In retrospect I am now very uncomfortable and very unsure that I have the moral authority (or any authority) to have advised her and her fellow writers to take risks.

I am sharing this anecdote here because my conversation with this student made me think about the issue of teaching international students in an increasingly global classroom. I thought this story may be useful to highlight some challenges and problems we are facing as lecturers and supervisors in journalism, media, and communication, particularly given that, at the moment, a significant percentage of that international cohort is from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In 2018, there were 152,591 students from the People’s Republic of China studying in higher education institutions in Australia. They made up 38.3% of the total international student population in Australian universities.

Much of what I have to say here comes from my experience of lecturing in a number of institutions in Australia, China, and the United States for more than 20 years, as well as from my regular discussions with colleagues in a number of universities in the country. I also conducted one-to-one interviews with 10 academics in Australia who have had experience in teaching international students. In addition, I had conversations with three Chinese-Australian academics who are now teaching journalism, media, and communication. Finally, I held two focus groups with PRC students.

I am focussing here on PRC students, primarily because I know this cohort better than any other – and they also happen to make up the majority of our international students, despite Australian universities’ ongoing attempts to diversify their sources of international enrolments. Even though the PRC student cohort presents itself as the most logical one for a case study, the concerns I am trying to address are general in nature; I do not want to suggest that China is in any sense exceptional in this context.

A further complication to bear in mind is that even the term “Chinese students” should be carefully qualified. A student who has landed in Australia only a few months ago from China may have quite a different political outlook and cultural sensibility from an “ABC” (Australian Born Chinese) student. As a point of further differentiation, there are also the Chinese of the so-called “1.5 Generation” — those who were born in China but migrated to Australia as young children with their parents and spent their formative years mostly in Australia.


Both formal interviews and casual conversations with academic colleagues suggest that the biggest challenge facing our international classroom is the lack of English proficiency among international students. This is borne out by my own experience of lecturing and supervising students from the PRC. As far as PRC students are concerned, this is a big problem. It affects students’ ability to understand lectures and reading materials — but more importantly, it impedes their capacity to communicate and participate with local students.

I cannot overstate how many times I have had PRC students telling me that they have things to say and ideas to express but they do not have the language proficiency to do it. This is made worse by the fact that they come from a culture that respects hierarchy and authority, encourages students to be modest and polite, and considers it undesirable to be argumentative and confrontational.

The linguistic and cultural differences among students of various origins get played out in our increasingly global classrooms, and it is important to acknowledge that these are spaces that are underscored by unequal power relations — between teachers and students; between local students and international students; between those who speak English as their native tongue and/or have a Western outlook and sensibility and those who do not.

VZ, a Chinese postgraduate student studying public communication in Sydney, became emotional when she recounted something she had experienced first-hand:

I was sitting in a classroom waiting for the class to begin. Also in the room were two local Australian students. They were chit-chatting with each other. One said, “I was in another class this morning and I was one of the two local students in that class. Everyone else was international.” The other student replied, “Gosh, that’s awful. That must be really tough!” They were talking as if I was not in the room, and the fact that I was an international student didn’t seem to register or bother them.

VZ then told me that she came to Australia 6 years ago as a high school student. She believed that although she had been upset to witness this exchange, she felt that there was little she could do about local Australian students’ lack of interest in engaging with — never mind learning from — international students. This said, she indicated that for those PRC students who had arrived even more recently than she had and who were therefore even less acculturated to the local context, things could be a lot tougher.

Language and cultural differences aside, there is also the issue of academic literacy. At graduate level, especially in the supervision of higher degree research students, we often admit students without adequate research skills and academic literacy. Local students whose native language is English find it hard enough. However, coupled with the challenges they face, in general, language proficiency, and this could be a lot harder for overseas students.

One higher degree research student from the PRC submitted her first piece of writing to me, which started as follows: “Chinese media is mostly propaganda, and functions to convey the government messages.” So, I asked her, “How do you know that? What is the source of this knowledge?” She was puzzled by my question, and said she just knew; after all, up until now she had lived in China all her life. I explained to her that since she was writing an academic paper instead of an opinion piece, she needed to do more than say that she just knows. Who are the scholars who have published work on this topic? What are their main debates in this area? Moreover, if this is your own hypothesis or argument, what kind of evidence can you present to substantiate such a general statement?

My point is that too often we are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy, not on providing guidance on students’ research topics but on how to present empirical material as evidence for a hypothesis, how to frame research objectives, and how to construct an argument.

International students’ feelings of alienation can be understood in two — related — ways:

  • the current model of teaching and content delivery requires a level of socialisation both inside and outside the classroom, in which they are ill-equipped to participate;
  • the paradigm, theories and analytical frameworks in course content are Western-centric, which international students cannot resonate with.

Although alienation in the first way could be experienced in all disciplines — sciences and social sciences — alienation of the second kind is especially acute in Humanities and Social Sciences degrees, and particularly in journalism, media and communication. The difference between media/communication and, say, engineering is not just the better language skills we require; it is, more importantly, that the product we are offering is more invested in promoting certain values and ideologies (although, of course, some would dispute the implication that there is no such thing as a value-free engineering or science degree).

In journalism, we teach students to ask tough questions, present oppositional views, and be fearless in truth seeking, but how do we reconcile this with the knowledge that when these students go back to their own country having learned these skills and adopted these values, they may not be able to put them into practice?

The conflict between economic interest and ideological value is not just in what we teach, but also in how we teach. In critical media studies, if we are doing the right thing, we would want our students to engage in analysing how a certain ideology is produced and represented. If our PRC students want to do this within the Chinese context, which is logical and understandable, what analytical framework should we introduce to them? Agenda setting? Framing analysis?

As Georgette Wang contends, given that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sets the agenda and its media have only to follow, it seems that agenda setting is a bit superfluous or even pretentious. As for framing analysis, it only makes sense to use this to bring to light bias when on the surface the media are understood to be objective. If journalism is primarily concerned with the “Party line,” would framing analysis be necessary or relevant?

Similarly, in Australia, and in the West more generally, propaganda is a dirty word and should be avoided at all costs — so what does it mean to use this term and its associated framework to understand the media in an authoritarian regime, where propaganda is not only not a dirty word but where doing effective propaganda is a benchmark of journalistic professionalism? As a handful of Westerners who have taught journalism in China can testify, these are difficult questions.

A survey of the textbooks used by journalism students in Renmin University of China, Tsinghua University and Fudan University — to cite three top universities offering journalism degrees — reveals that journalistic professionalism means, first and foremost, strict adherence to the official ideology of the Party. So, if a Chinese graduate student in Australia has such an undergraduate background, how do they cope with the likely intellectual and cognitive dissonance they experience here?

Once upon a time, we would have set aside a couple weeks to cover media in Asia — or, more generally, the so-called “non-West” — as evidence of our attempt to internationalise course content. For the last couple decades, quite a few universities have used a textbook by Stephen Littlejohn and Karen Foss called Theories of Human Communication, now in its eleventh edition, in their foundational courses in communication. Note that the title is “Theories of Human Communication,” not “Theories of Western Communication.” The textbook has been in print for decades, and the most recent edition has a few brief paragraphs about “Eastern” communication in the Introduction.

Recently, I gave a guest lecture to a roomful of postgraduate students who were using this as their set textbook. I looked around the classroom, and two thirds of the students were from non-Western backgrounds — mostly from the PRC, with a couple from south Asia, and one from the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine how these students could engage with the book’s content in the absence of any discussion of the dominant communication styles of their own cultures.

Consequently, for two obvious reasons, this approach has become more problematic than ever before. First, the reality is that “Asians” are here, sitting next to “us” in the same classroom, and they bring opinions, knowledge and cultural experience with them that may challenge or contradict what is being taught in the class. Second, the course content and curricular paradigm we use were created in an era prior to the arrival of what Daya Thussu calls the “new global communication order.”

Teaching a Western-centric paradigm not only leads to giving students tools and skills that are less than relevant, but it may also risk alienating students culturally. Equally significantly, it has the undesirable consequence of reinforcing the intrinsic parochialism in the intellectual content and orientation of our pedagogy.


Of course, students come from a wide range of national, cultural and social backgrounds, and there is an equally wide range of expectations regarding their learning experience. It is clear that some international students are less bothered by the pedagogic issues I’ve outlined, because they are more interested in learning practical skills. Indeed, a Melbourne-based Australian university that has a very high graduate population of PRC students in media, communication and journalism recently engaged an international education consultancy to find out, among other things, how best to serve the needs of their international students. A survey of more than 80 PRC students in the MA cohort finds that most students are very interested in learning about the practical side of communication, and less in theory and analysis.

Similarly, some international students see the real value of their education as lying in the opportunity it gives them to acquire work experience outside China. For this reason, many students in the same survey expressed an interest in course content that introduces them to the journalism, media and communication industry sectors in Australia. With a degree such as this, they hope to get a job in advertising, a media company, a PR firm, or elsewhere in the corporate sector. In other words, not all of them want to become truth-seeking journalists or critical media studies scholars.

Based on their various expectations, students may adopt different coping strategies in response to the experience of alienation in the classroom. Based on my own conversations with colleagues and students alike, it is possible to identify a few common types of expectations.

The first common response could be that of apathy: “I didn’t have a clear idea what to expect before I signed on except that I wanted to pass the course and get a degree.” A more cynical variant of this view is where some international students just want to be able to say to their parents, “I’ve done it; I’ve got my degree, so your money wasn’t wasted.”

Second, some international students feel frustrated and alienated, because their views are different and they want to speak but they do not have the language fluency or intellectual confidence to do so; hence, they resign themselves to remain quiet.

Third, some do feel bold enough to engage, but their lack of a critical language combined with the unequal power dynamics in the classroom means that discussions are often impoverishing rather than enriching.

Lecturers and tutors are typically well aware of these problems, although some are more vocal about them than others. Again, there is a diverse range of responses. The first might simply be along these lines: We are offering a product, and our international students, like their local counterparts, have signed up to get this product. With this product, they expect to learn a set of skills and techniques of production, including, for instance, how to use a camera, how to make a film, how to produce sound and how to design a website. This view seems prevalent among teaching academics in the areas of media production and communication practices.

The second response to these issues might be as follows: If international students choose to come here, of course they should expect our curriculum to be different from that of their own countries. They may not find all of what is offered here useful or relevant, but at least they will be exposed to a different set of epistemologies and knowledge structures. This may broaden their horizons by exposing them to alternative perspectives. After all, not all our local students end up using the knowledge and skills they acquire. Moreover, we can speculate that many international students would be happy with that learning outcome, and complete their study thinking that they have got their money’s worth.

The third kind of response might be as follows: Some international students may come from a communist or authoritarian country where there is little media freedom. However, they are here now, and they can learn to make a difference. Consequently, we should encourage them to take advantage of this opportunity and learn how to fight for the values we believe to be universally true, including the freedom of expression. Frank Moorhouse’s advice to the student, with which I began, seems to be motivated by such a spirit.

Finally, and most common of all, is a sense that something has gone awry, a feeling that something has to be done about it, yet a lack of capacity at the individual level to make a difference. Many see problems, but few profess to have an effective solution. In my conversations with numerous colleagues around the country, I have realised that this is a question that is on the minds of many people. An associate professor and the head of the media and communication graduate program in one of Australia’s largest universities had this to say:

The PRC student issue is a huge one for us: we have seen fast growth per annum in our Masters program the last three years, basically on the back of Chinese demand. At one level, of course, that’s great and the Faculty are certainly pleased with us. But it also raises some fairly fundamental questions. If the great majority of our students are from the PRC, shouldn’t we be doing some basic thinking about who those students are and designing the program around their needs? What is the value for a Chinese student of learning about Western media systems? What will they do with that knowledge when they return home?

This is echoed by another Australian academic, an associate professor teaching investigative journalism in a graduate class:

The paradigm of journalism we are teaching here is not something these Chinese students can take back to their own countries. I still would like to think that journalism is a truth-seeking activity, and we need students to learn how to protect sources, verify information, and challenge authorities. These concepts are either not feasible or, well, foreign, to these students.

These academics’ reflections articulate a pedagogic conundrum of Western-oriented teaching theories and methodologies, which, while they arose from culturally and historically specific contexts, are implemented in classrooms as universally applicable theories — even though many students in those classrooms come from outside such contexts.

In some programs/universities more than others, the question of how to resolve the issues facing international students has become divisive. Some see these students as a burden and a problem; others insist that, although they bring challenges, they are also rich intellectual resources and important learning partners. One academic who teaches graduate courses in organisational communication thinks that some of her colleagues are patronising to international students and do not have much respect for their intellectual capacity:

They often make the argument that our local students are not getting a fair deal for being in the same classroom with international students, and they do not realise or acknowledge that while international students are here to learn, they also have a lot to teach to our local students and teachers.

Anxiety and asymmetry

If Australia is host to the largest number of overseas Chinese students after the United States and the United Kingdom, our relationship with China is nevertheless far more asymmetrical. What has so far gone unacknowledged is that the dynamics in our global classrooms are also to a considerable extent shaped by how Australia sees a particular country in its current geopolitical imagination. As a liberal democracy steeped in the Anglo-European social and cultural tradition, Australia’s geographical proximity to Asia, its status as a close ally of the United States and its economic dependence on China mean that our public discourse about China’s rise, its political influence and its economic dominance tend to be more laden with fear and anxiety than elsewhere.

All these factors come into play in shaping the experience of PRC students in the Australian classroom. One PhD student from the PRC now living and studying in Sydney believes that anti-Chinese racist posters found on a number of campuses in Sydney and Melbourne are an indication of how Chinese students here are now bearing the brunt of the mainstream’s alarmist and sensational discourses about China’s influence and threat:

Of course, it is very hard to prove the direct link between Australia’s media discourses about China, and the racism the Chinese students are experiencing, but the fact that anti-Chinese racism is taking place at this particular point in time seems hardly a coincidence.

Reading the Australian media often enough, one can be forgiven for thinking that many Chinese students are “controlled” by the Chinese government or at least brainwashed by its propaganda. Indeed, that is exactly what the Australian media are telling the public now.

However, we may do well to remember that these patriotic Chinese students we see on television or in newspapers could be the same students who have a very clear-eyed understanding of the propaganda function of the Chinese media, and are extremely clever at jumping Internet firewalls on a daily basis to get around censorship and control in China. They could be the same people who write doggerel implicitly criticising the Chinese government, invent homophones to get around censorship of sensitive words and come up with clever ways of playing “edge ball” and cat and mouse games with the authorities on social media.

They have grown up in a culture of propaganda and, as a result, are good at deciphering propaganda and news in an oppositional way. In fact, oppositional decoding has been a national sport, especially during the socialist decades. At the same time, they could be as enchanted with the Western media as they are cynical about the Chinese media. They grow up thinking that the news in the West is more objective and free from propaganda.

To be sure, international students from the PRC can be described as patriotic. When I asked an informal gathering of eight PRC students at Sydney University whether they saw themselves as patriotic, the answers were interesting. “You bet. The longer I stay here, the more patriotic I’ve become.” Another said, “For us, the best patriotism education happens when you leave China.” A third commented, “I’ve been here for more than a couple of years and I’ve not seen a single positive news story about China. Not even during Chinese New Year.” Moreover, a fourth student said, “It doesn’t matter how long I stay here; I’m always treated differently.”

I have argued elsewhere that such pro-China “patriotic education” can at least in part be attributed to heated discussions in the Australian classroom, where news coverage about China is analysed, where accusations of bias are traded on both sides, and misunderstandings and prejudices reinforced rather than dispelled.

Tensions tend to flare up between PRC students and local/Western students over China-related issues. These could range from small matters such as the rivalry between swimmers Sun Yang and Matt Horton, to more serious arguments about Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan or the South China Seas. On occasions such as these, PRC students’ frustration is not that people disagree with them, but rather it is that they feel that they do not have an equal chance to put forward their views without being branded as stooges of the CCP.

A young Chinese-Australian scholar who has been lecturing and tutoring in media studies for a number of years in Australia, recalls a tutorial discussion in which accusation of bias were traded, but an opportunity for developing an understanding of how bias works was lost in the heat of the moment:

A couple of years ago, there was a violent incident in a train station in the Chinese city of Kunming, where more than 20 people were killed. The Chinese official media reported it as a terrorist attack on innocent civilians. Western media, Reuters, for instance, reported on the incident, putting “terrorist attack” in scare quotes in the headline, suggesting that it was framed by the Chinese media as a terrorist attack while in fact it was local Muslims protesting against the oppression of the Chinese regime. Somehow, this story was discussed in the Comparative Media System class I was teaching. There was a heated argument in the classroom. PRC students thought the Western media was biased and always covered China within a singular framework. Local students said that the PRC students were influenced by the government’s propaganda. It was quite heated.

An investigation of China’s influence in Australia by ABC’s Four Corners presents another example of possible cross-cultural misreading. The program contains footage of Chinese students demonstrating their love of their motherland, wearing red shirts, waving flags and shouting patriotic slogans to welcome their Premier Li Keqiang to Sydney. Some Australian students — and commentators in general — use this program as evidence that Chinese students are actively working for the Chinese government. However, the students may feel — and rightly so — that they are being unfairly tarnished and wrongfully accused. They say that they did not see this activity as a political action, nor did they mean to intimidate anyone. They say that it was just an opportunity for them to get together and have some fun, and also to express their identity. They do not think that it is too different from what footie fans do in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Sadly, such moments of mutual miscomprehension, misreading, and misunderstanding can all too often result in international students becoming disenchanted with notions of objectivity, freedom of expression and democratic values, about which they came to Australia to learn in the first place. Equally sadly, they become disillusioned with their fellow local students’ and teachers’ unwillingness or inability to entertain new and different points of view.

At the same time, however, it is precisely moments such as this that give us opportunities for dialogue and debate, and for enriched rather than impoverished discussions in the classroom. It is in these processes that local students can learn that there is a connection, but also a distinction, between China’s official ideology and everyday patriotism, and that pro-China students are not necessarily duped by Chinese propaganda.

International students may also learn that, although they may be savvy about resisting Chinese official propaganda, they could benefit from learning more about how the Australian media work. They should learn — or, rather, it is our job to teach them — not to lump the Australian government, the Australian people, and the Australian media together as one entity, and that unlike the Chinese media, the media here do not have to answer to the government. We should teach them that there is a difference between public broadcasters and commercial/tabloid media, and that news in the West is by definition about conflict, not harmony. We need to teach them that the Australian media can be just as critical of their own government as they are of foreign governments. Moreover, we should teach them that, imperfect as it may be, this is how liberal democracy works.

Consequently, this is the complex teaching and learning environment in which we find ourselves. We are confronted with an exceptionally difficult set of problems, especially in view of China’s rise, the “new world communication order” that Daya Thussu outlines and Australia’s economic dependence on China.

At the same time, you may think that we are blessed with this fertile ground to engage in a potentially stimulating intellectual exchange. It is at times like this when a critical understanding of how media production and consumption work becomes paramount. In fact, I would not be risking too much to suggest that, given the particularly delicate geopolitics that marks Australia–China relations, tertiary education of international students in journalism media, and communication disciplines is facing an intellectual crisis in this country.

Current mainstream Australian media are both symptomatic of and contribute to general fear and prejudice in relation to China, and journalism, media and communication educators in this country can play a leadership role in educating the next generation of media practitioners to make a difference. It is crucial that we acknowledge this crisis and develop strategies to address it. We need to think about how to develop new intellectual and pedagogic paradigms so that all students learn something about their own country’s media and about the media practices of each other’s countries, and hopefully also learn ways of explaining these similarities and differences.

Coming back to the graduate student with whose story I began, I guess this would be the ideal learning outcome I wanted her to have. Moreover, I believe that if she graduates with this learning outcome, her capacity to fight for democracy and freedom of expression in China will be enhanced rather than diminished.

Cosmopolitan sensibility

Educators need to adopt what Silvio Waisbord and Claudia Mellado call a “cosmopolitan sensibility” in our teaching of journalism media, and communications. I believe this cosmopolitan sensibility needs to translate into at least three pedagogic goals:

  • as teachers we need to acquire a self-reflexive attitude and an awareness of our own cultural positions, and seek to inculcate this in all our students;
  • we must develop a capacity to see each society’s media studies paradigm as historically and socially specific;
  • we need to cultivate the habit of juxtaposing different media and communication practices, and a curiosity about what explains the difference and similarities between different media systems.

One Sydney-based senior lecturer feels strongly about the fact that international students are considered “second-class citizens” by some of her colleagues:

Some colleagues routinely complain in staff meetings about the problems caused by the presence of the large percentage of international students in the classroom. It has not occurred to them that their own parochialism is in fact part of the problem.

Admittedly, it is possible that not all our students — here I include both local and international students — are particularly interested in becoming global citizens with a cosmopolitan outlook. By aiming for such an outlook, we may just be giving students what we think they need, not what they want — or even what they actually do need, given their own cultural context. Given the general neoliberal educational environment, it may even come across as a bit quixotic.

However, nothing great will happen if we do not dare to imagine. Based on my conversations with colleagues, it seems that, although it is hard work, the outcome can be doubly rewarding, both for the students and for us as teachers. The result is that you end up learning something from your students, your international students end up learning something from you, local and international students may end up learning something about each other’s cultures, and we may all end up learning something new about ourselves.

Not long ago, in a lecture on cross-cultural differences in communication style for a graduate class in Communication Traditions, I asked the class how they express their love for their parents. A local Anglo female student said, “Well, obviously I say to them that I love them, and then I also do this and that to express [that love].” However, when I asked the Chinese students in the classroom if anyone had ever said “I love you” to their parents face to face, a few began to giggle with embarrassment. Finally, one young man said, “Not face to face. Not straight and in earnest. Never. I’ve said this once or twice in a text message. You don’t say that sort of thing face to face.” It was a revelation to the local students in the room. Moreover, it made the Chinese students reflect on the linguistically reserved nature of their own culture, too.

This is obviously a trivial example, but we can carry this spirit of comparison and cross-cultural learning into the discussion of more serious topics — such as how notions of propaganda, professionalism and objectivity are understood and practised in different cultural and social contexts, what constitutes truth seeking, and what the connection is between news values and political/cultural values.

This article is republished from the ABC 19 September 2019. Click here to read the original article.

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