The discourse on China’s influence in Australia has recently shifted its focus to Chinese students on Australian university campuses. They are seen as pro-Chinese Communist Party nationalists who sing the Chinese national anthem and shout profane abuse at pro-Hong Kong-protest supporters in our universities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.
They are portrayed as the angry youths, who are brainwashed by the Chinese curriculum (through moral education) and the tightly-controlled propagandist media and who are resistant to the ideals of freedom and democracy that Australia and the West have upheld and promoted among and beyond their own people.It is also suggested that our universities have failed us by using the Chinese international students only as cash cows without providing them with adequate social support (language and socialisation) or intellectual capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. Hence, it is argued, Chinese international students, like other ordinary Chinese migrants from China, have organised themselves, often via WeChat, in defence of Beijing’s rhetoric.
The question of the Chinese migrants’ identity in and loyalty to Australia has a high stake in the current debate on Chinese influence in Australia, as we have witnessed so far in media reports on Chinese political donations, business activities and Chinese students on our campuses. As a former international student with a degree in media and cultural studies from the University of Melbourne, an academic who has worked in the Australian universities for more than ten years and a Chinese migrant from the mainland, I feel a moral obligation and urgency to speak to some facts based on my experience and research.
Let’s start with the clashes between pro-China and pro-Hong Kong groups on our university campuses, which have been heatedly discussed in various chat groups on WeChat that I have followed. I have also discussed the issue with some Chinese students in Sydney and Melbourne. I have not seen evidence to show whether and how Chinese government, consulates or their agents have played a role in such clashes. I do observe a few trends that I share here.
First, there are mixed views on the rise of overseas Chinese nationalism on Australian university campuses. Many people in the Chinese community have expressed their disapproval of a small number of Chinese students demonstrating their patriotism over Hong Kong. They are disappointed at the vulgarity in the slogans that Chinese students launched towards pro-Hong Kong protestors. Young students themselves are ambivalent about their fellow students’ behaviours. Some are in it for the fun or friendship when they are called upon by their friends for ‘reinforcement’. As one pointed out, it is really cool to be able to protest and have their voice heard in public, which one has not been, or would not be, able to do in China.
Some others may have a much more ideological agenda – the demonstration of patriotism may add to their political capital back in China amid the growing trend of Chinese students returning to their homeland for work opportunities. There are also those who identify strongly with the party propaganda on national pride and unity, and hence joined the rally voluntarily. Still, there is a large number of Chinese students who have chosen not to participate in such a public display of overseas Chinese nationalism, amid their confusion and frustration at the anti-Chinese rhetoric in Australian mainstream media.
The mix of all this makes it hard to detect where the boundaries are between those who do it for fun and solidarity and those who do it for political purposes. But one thing in common is the view on the rise of overseas Chinese nationalism that we have witnessed in Australia and elsewhere: it is a reaction to the ‘education’ one has received from both China and Australia, in both formal and informal ways.
There has been lots of criticism of Chinese education and its political indoctrination on Chinese people from cradle to tomb. Similarly, writings on Chinese media and media censorship have portrayed a 1984 or ‘Black Mirror’ scenario as social reality in China. At the same time, the analysis on Chinese soft power expansion is mostly characterised by a ‘silent invasion’ rhetoric that evokes fear of and defence against Chinese influence and infiltration. Chinese students in Australia feel a strong sense of alienation and indignation when they read reports that portray them as dupes and their homeland as the darkest corner on earth.
In the words of one Chinese student who recently completed his two-year postgraduate degree in Sydney, ‘I don’t feel welcomed in Australia, despite the friendly smiles of most Aussies, not only because of the cultural barrier (in everyday communication) but also because of the bias against China and Chinese in their attitudes towards us. I’m so disappointed that Australian media are as biased as the Chinese media’. He says it is hard to trust anything he reads in the media nowadays, whether it is in Chinese or English. He did not participate in or support the pro-China rally.
This leads to my second point: the role of overseas education in Australia. Australian universities have been criticised in some reports for using international Chinese students as cash cows, without providing adequate support and at the sacrifice of quality education. Australian universities have responded to such accusations. But a key point that is missing from the discussion is the role of Western education for Chinese international students. Yes, it is true that overseas education is viewed as a pathway towards better employment and immigration opportunities by Chinese students and their families. It is our responsibility as education providers and educators, however, to teach these students ways of critical and independent thinking.
My experience as a university lecturer shows how important it is for educators themselves to be open-minded and Asia-literate when teaching international students from China and elsewhere in Asia. I encourage my students to challenge the status quo through critical thinking and independent research and formulate their own arguments through open debates in the classroom. Rather than shutting down pro-China arguments from Chinese students on issues related to Taiwan or democracy and human rights, I encourage them to view things from the opponents’ perspectives.
My Australian education has taught me not to view issues in dichotomies, as the world is never as simple as black and white. Between the meta-narrative of the CCP as the saviour of the Chinese nation and the meta-narrative of Western model of electoral ‘democracy’ as the common destiny of humanity, are there other possibilities? The views among Chinese students are as diversified as my non-Chinese students.
The current hype of the fear about China’s influence in Australia and simplistic portrayal of patriotic Chinese students reflect more of Australia’s own fear, anxiety and inadequacy than of what China really is or what Chinese in Australia are. It is easy and lazy to imagine and construct an enemy and blame it for one’s own failure or incompetency in managing a meaningful relationship. Quite often, as in a personal relationship, it is more challenging to be introspective and self-reflexive.
As Chiu-Ti Jansen says, ‘Boastful rich kids and abusive students do not represent the best China can offer to the future of the world. A manufactured dichotomy and patriotic indoctrination will not help China win over Hong Kongers. The free exchange of ideas will’. While we lament the lack of opportunity for the free exchange of ideas in China, we should live up to this ideal in our public discussions on Australia’s response to the rise of China and Chinese students in Australian universities.
Associate Professor Haiqing Yu is a Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University