KERRY BROWN and EMMA LUO. Degrees of espionage(Chatham House/The World today 13.2.2020)

Feb 21, 2020

Fears are rising in countries…that China is wielding undue influence through its supposed infiltration of universities and institutions and by its spying on companies and government.

These worries have now arrived in Britain with a recent parliamentary report stating that democracies face a ‘greater challenge than ever before’ in combating autocratic interference.

A clearer understanding of the issue may be achieved by focusing on the claim that the academic integrity and independence of western universities are being undermined by the financial incentive of attracting large numbers of Chinese students.

Australia has the world’s highest proportion of Chinese students, amounting to 11 per cent of its university population, compared with 9 per cent in New Zealand, and 6 per cent in Britain, according to a 2019 analysis by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

Australia’s most prominent universities rely heavily on international students for revenue and growth, with Chinese students accounting for 71 per cent of University of Sydney’s and 74 per cent of UNSW’s international student income, and 23 per cent and 22 per cent of entire revenue respectively.

In Britain, Chinese students play an increasing role in universities’ income stream, with 31 per cent of first-year inbound students coming from China and more Chinese students than in the rest of the European Union combined.

Despite the ‘mounting evidence of foreign influence in British universities’ in the form of financial, political and diplomatic pressure, there is ‘remarkably little debate’ on the issue, according to a Foreign Affairs Committee report, A Cautious Embrace: Defending Democracy in the Age of Autocracies. The report encourages the Foreign Office to learn from countries such as Australia how to protect universities from autocratic influence. How close are the situations between these two countries, and what lessons can Britain take from Australia’s experience?

There is no doubt that the Chinese state is active. The question is how and to what degree. In conjunction with other spheres in which the Chinese Communist Party is seen to interfere, claims about increasingly pervasive Chinese influence in higher education are seen as strategic, focused and strong. The party has an ideological justification for this, reinforcing the ‘six legitimacies’ that the current Xi administration talks of in terms of limiting foreign interference by controlling Chinese citizens living abroad. But how far does evidence and reality go to justify these claims about influence?

The problem of Chinese students

The Australian press reports that the country is losing the battle against China’s ‘citizen spies’. Since 2015 newspapers from The Sydney Morning Herald to The Australian Financial Review have argued that Chinese students are deployed abroad as spies for the Chinese Communist Party. John Garnaut, an Australian former journalist based in China, and a government adviser, claimed as early as 2014 that China was building large underground espionage networks inside Australia’s leading universities.

There were informant networks to monitor and protect Beijing’s ‘core interests’, using students to report to embassy and other handlers. Their mandate was to see off any criticism of China on issues such as Taiwan or its treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, or over human rights, but also to target intellectual property. Such actions were described as part of the students’ patriotic duties.

There is probably some truth in these accusations, but the issue with them is one of scale. China would not be the first country to use students, journalists or other of its citizens as cover for spying activities. But the idea that even a significant minority of Chinese students abroad are working like this is untenable, not least because embassy staff working for China would not be able to deal with the volume of material, most of it of little or no value, they would receive.

Chinese government policy, were it to try to use spying on such a scale, would be undermining itself, compromising the status of Chinese people, almost all of whom are abroad for the reasons they say they are, not spying, or acting as ‘sleeper’ agents of influence, but simply studying.

Furthermore, there is a common misconception that Chinese people are obliged to spy on foreign governments at the request of the government. There is no provision in Chinese law requiring this. The commonly cited National Intelligence Law, Article 7 does not authorize pre-emptive spying, but only that which is defensive in nature.

The greatest problem with this set of claims is that it risks consigning a large and diverse group of people into one block. Simple observation on a university campus shows that Chinese students, while a large group, are abroad for all sorts of reasons relating to their interests and their backgrounds.

The one thing most share is the significant challenge of settling into a new environment. Portraying them as a threat makes this challenge all the more difficult.

There are times when the more extreme articulations of this verge on racism. As Jieh-Yung Lo says, pointing fingers at people for a purported allegiance to China ‘on the basis of their race and cultural heritage without evidentiary base’ is highly damaging to Australia’s reputation and society, exposing it to ‘further discrimination and the break down of trust’. This is not a positive model for Britain to adopt.

There is no point dealing with a threat so dispersed and imprecise that no one knows exactly what it is. Having a very clear idea of where there is a high chance that intelligence operatives would be using cover as students would be a good start. The truth is more nuanced. The vast majority of Chinese students travel abroad to do what they say they do: access and experience the benefits of international education.

One question we have to ask very seriously is who exactly these Chinese students are. They are a relatively new, little understood and often almost invisible group. One claim implicit in discussions about the spy issue is that Chinese students are brainwashed and sent on a mission to infiltrate all aspects of academia, make Australian universities the ‘frontline in China’s ideological wars’ and undermine freedom of speech. The Australian academic Clive Hamilton even goes as far as describing the Chinese at Australian universities as ‘patriotic students brainwashed from birth’.

These arguments are riddled with double standards. It is just as much freedom of speech to voice opinions supporting China as it is to criticize China. Students often just want to ‘tell China’s story well’,, letting their teachers in Australia know that China has been portrayed in the wrong light.

Needless to say, and particularly in the current environment, many Chinese students are patriotic and want to express support for their country. This is their choice. No one has forced them to do this.

Certainly, sometimes this will manifest itself over issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, which are contentious. Their expression of support for these, if done peacefully, may seem over-patriotic, but it is not something they can be blankly accused of having no choice over, any more than the more blunt expressions of European or American patriotism.

We are not, as Hamilton declares, dealing with people who are brainwashed. We are dealing with people who have a different perspective to our own.

This is not to deny the failings of the Chinese domestic education system, which is frequently teacher-centric, hierarchical, and cultivates in its students a submissive and narrow outlook.

This often serves to produce opinionated students lacking the ability to engage in self-critical thinking, but that does not mean they are the state’s puppets. In fact, their adoption of entrenched positions is often as much a problem for their home government as it is for people coming in contact with them in their host country.

As Fran Martin, of the University of Melbourne, notes, while Beijing’s patriotic education campaigns conducted since the 1990s have had an effect on young Chinese, ‘students are smart people, they are educated, they are not cultural dopes … No one is so stupid as to be simply taking on a government line and never questioning that’.

The majority are expressing one aspect of their identities. It is an uncomfortable fact, but popular support by Chinese citizens for their government cannot simply be attributed to the Chinese government propaganda campaigns.

Next, one must engage with the hard evidence. As James Laurenceson, of the Australia-China Research Institute at UTS in Sydney, shows in Do the Claims Stack Up? Australia talks China, only four incidents in the context of 133,891 Chinese students at more than 30 universities in 2017 were reported to have stifled freedom of expression or classroom discussion. This is a tiny percentage. The University of Sydney also issued a statement making it clear that no academics have ever been forced to apologize for statements relating to China.

The nature of Chinese influence

This is a dynamic situation. China has made plenty of mistakes. It has a problematic message, and often adopts defensive and self-defeating postures. Even so, it is not wholly to blame for the current situation.

Australia’s own lack of identity and confidence has also contributed towards this current stance towards China. The rest of the world would do well to pay attention to the China influence debate in Australia, not because of any universal lessons, but because it is often as much concerned with what Australia feels about itself as what it feels about another – in this case China.

This is not a new issue. Australia has been worried about its neighbours for many decades. In the past, it was either Indonesia or, in the 1980s and 1990s, Japan.

From 1901 various Australian governments pursued the infamous ‘white Australia policy’ – something that was only properly dismantled in 1973. This policy made clear the deep unease that Australia felt at being a European-origin country in an ethnically different geography.

Fears of Chinese migration, too, are not new. In the 19th century, the Gold Rush saw clashes between Chinese migrants and Australians. It is not spelt out in public debate, but the Australian issues with China now are located partly in this context of general unease about Australia’s own identity.

On that issue, at least, China is not guilty. China does want something, certainly. Who doesn’t? But it is not the conquest of Australia. It is more recognition from Australia, and others, of its global status and its legitimacy at home. That might seem an odd thing to ask, but it betrays China’s own insecurity.

It is important to get the interpretative framework for China’s actions right. One major assumption is that China will be similar to, or exactly like, previous major powers in how it operates.

The historic template is western paternalism, most recently practised by the United States. The idea of China posing an ‘existential threat’ is partly derived from the assumption that it will follow the past example of the US, with its historical paternalistic mission to be a moral and cultural model for others.

With its highly distinctive political model, and its exclusive notion of what it is to be Chinese, there are huge questions about whether this is in fact the mode of operation China is adopting or something outsiders are imposing.

The case of Australia’s relations with China is important because of the closeness and intensity of the relationship in the past few years, and the way it exposes not just diplomatic issues, but raises deeper problems of identity and confidence.

What lies behind these accusations of Chinese interference? The source can be traced back to previous experiences which have little relation to an accurate, evidence-based interpretation of what China might actually be doing, and what kind of power it is.

This does not deny that there are plenty of ways in which China is a problem. Its diplomatic operations are clumsy and culturally tone deaf. Its obsession with a narrow set of issues is alienating and often self defeating. The antagonism its operations have created in places such as Australia, Europe and the US are indicative of failure, not success.

The real problem is that the country likely to be the world’s largest economy in a few years’ time is so isolated and poor at communicating its key mission.

 Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director, Lau China Institute, at King’s College London and Emma Luo is an Australian postgraduate student in the Lau China Institute at King’s College London

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