Chinese International Students and National Security

Jun 16, 2020

A great many Australians appear to have difficulty accepting that Chinese parents might be concerned about the safety of their children who study in Australia even though the number of attacks on Chinese residents in Australia has increased markedly.

That Australians find it difficult to empathise with China’s parents is evidenced by the self-satisfied ease with which they have dismissed the warning to international students issued by China’s Ministry of Education as nothing more than a crass attempt to coerce our government to kowtow to Beijing.

Given the decaying Australia-China relationship to suspect Beijing’s motives is not unreasonable. The vehemence of our protests and expressions of innocence, however, reflects a deficiency of capacity to identify with Chinese parents. It also indicates a lack of awareness that on earlier occasions when Chinese international students were subjected to increased threats to their social, emotional and physical security and host governments were deemed to be responding inadequately China intervened to protect its citizens.

In 2010, together with three others, I published a book titled International Student Security which discussed “many unresolved issues confronting students and their families, including personal safety, language proficiency, finances, sub-standard housing, loneliness and racism.” One issue discussed was how governments, education departments and universities of Australia and New Zealand responded when Chinese officials advised that they believed these bodies were not according the safety of international students due attention.

Concern was first raised with New Zealand following a number of attacks on Asian students including the beheading of a South Korean by neo-nazis. These anxieties were dismissed with the claim that except for a few ‘bad apples’ New Zealanders were not racists. When this denial proved the best that Wellington would offer China’s education officials warned Chinese students that they should not study in New Zealand and collapsed the Kiwi’s China market.

In Australia, there was a similar response. Indeed, when I approached the then Education Minister Julia Gillard and warned there was a mounting international student safety crisis my warning was dismissed as unduly alarmist. Some weeks later thousands of international students blockaded a major intersection in Melbourne for some twenty hours demanding that Australian governments and education institutions pay increased attention to their safety and confronted by a collapse in demand from across Asia Australians took notice.

At the time observers believed that only South Asian students took action to protest Australian officials ‘blasé attitude regarding the safety of international students. In reality, however, China’s embassy warned the Australian government that if it did not improve student safety it would advise its students not to study in Australia.  Responding to this warning, Gillard overhauled the regulations relating to student safety and universities increased the resources directed to international student welfare and by so doing limited the damage done to Australia’s position in the global education market.

As a similar situation appears to be unfolding currently one might think that if we were to once again take China’s expressions of concern seriously and increase the resources we commit to protecting international students a similar positive outcome might be achieved. This time, however, things are more complicated because we are now dealing not only with student security but with national security. China’s students are being caught up in the unfolding China-US new Cold War. That this is occurring was made abundantly manifest on 29th May when the US President issued a Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Nonimmigrants of Certain Students and Researchers from the People’s Republic of China.

This edict has been urged on Trump by American high technology firms that are terrified of the competition being generated by Beijing’s Made in China 2025 program and by fear that China’s tech drive is being assisted by the many Chinese research students who receive their training in Western universities. The proclamation limits the ability of Chinese nationals to enter the USA to undertake postgraduate programs if they have studied at a PRC entity that implements or supports China’s “military-civil fusion strategy”. This effectively means all Chinese universities because, as is the case in the USA and Australia, virtually all higher education institutions in China undertake research that has military implications.

Australia’s officials are being coerced by the US to similarly limit Chinese students’ ability to take up postgraduate studies. In response, we have made it more difficult for Chinese doctoral candidates to gain the required visa needed to study in Australia. How we might further respond to the coercion emanating from Washington is no doubt being debated both in Canberra and by Australia’s Vice-Chancellors. In making their decisions these actors should remain aware that their Chinese counterparts have been working to minimise the cost that denying Chinese students the ability to study in the West will impose on China’s development.

As a consequence, eleven of the top 20 universities in Asia are in now in China and Beijing has engaged policies designed to both radically improve the quality of teaching and direct China’s academics to more closely centre their research on the needs of China’s industries and population. They should also remain sensitive to the fact that when the international relations doyens, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Hugh White of the ANU, debated how Australia should respond to China’s rise in August 2019 Mearsheimer warned that if Australia continues to sustain a robust commercial relationship with China it will be perceived to be ‘feeding the beast’ and this practice will be judged a threat to US national security and dealt with accordingly

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