How should Australia respond to China’s influence in our universities?

At last week’s Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stated that China’s priority is to become a globally “stronger” nation. AAP/Thomas Peter

The federal government is concerned about Chinese influence in Australia, particularly on universities. While we don’t know exactly how deep this influence runs, we do know quite a bit.

Financially, many Australian universities depend on international students from mainland China. It was recently suggested that 16% of the University of Sydney’s revenue comes from these students. Over the past two decades, this rapid change has made universities look and feel different.

From a financial perspective, it didn’t really matter if universities changed; the more enrolments the better. From a social perspective, university administrators suggested that the presence of Chinese students would create mutually beneficial cross-cultural communication and exchange. Academics initially thought that while it might take a while, Chinese students would “adjust” to Australia.

More recently, academics have come to a more pessimistic conclusion: Chinese students in Australia inhabit a “parallel society”, in which they engage with Australian society only rarely.

The combination of these factors — Australia’s financial dependence on China, the increasing Chinese presence in Australia, the disconnection of mainland Chinese students from Australian society and culture, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasing global assertiveness — has begun to create conflict.

What are the conflicts?

When university students and teachers discuss contentious issues relating to China, they often face criticism from PRC students. The criticism can be harsh, well-organised, and heavily publicised. Cases at the University of Newcastle, Monash University, and the Australian National University illustrate the scope of the problem.

Nothing about student protest is inherently undesirable. In fact, it is a manifestation of the academic freedom that university students deserve – and would not have in China. But what constitutes a “contentious issue”, and who is orchestrating this criticism? Examining the issues disputed makes two things clear: first, that the issues Chinese students deem “contentious” are exactly the same issues that the Chinese government deems “contentious”, particularly those relating to China’s territorial integrity and history. Second, that the organisations orchestrating the response to these issues, particularly the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), are funded by and work closely with Chinese state bodies such as consulates.

This runs in parallel with a steady intensification of “ideological education” in the PRC, together with attempts to shape how China is seen by the world through Confucius Institutes, the CSSA, and other “soft power” bodies. At last week’s Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stated China’s priority is to become a globally “stronger” nation.

So, should universities and the Australian government draw the line at some point? Should they ban or restrict contentious organisations? And if these groups cause friction on campus, how should university students and administrators respond?


Read more: Telling Chinese students to conform won’t fix cross-cultural issues


Three main issues in question

Is this really the Chinese government’s fault?

In some ways, yes. The chain of command is clear: from the PRC government to consulates to student organisations to students. On the other hand, students often don’t need to be encouraged to support Chinese interests. Teachers hear spontaneous outbursts of nationalism in class all the time.

Students in the CSSA are being manipulated by the PRC government, but they are individuals too. Universities should set a high standard for suppressing individual views. Supporting one government’s policies does not meet that standard.

Who is really being harmed here?

Broadly speaking, local students and academics are hearing views they don’t want to hear, often inaccurate, and frequently phrased in an inflammatory way. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Student politics is fundamentally confrontational. If local students and academics disagree, we can speak up, as several students have done.

The more severe harms are to Chinese-background students, whether or not they are from the PRC. Chinese culture is not the same as PRC culture. It is complex and diverse, and Chinese students have wide-ranging views on many topics. As a teacher of Chinese students, I am not particularly concerned when my students support the PRC. They have many reasons to do so. But I am extremely concerned when students tell me that they are afraid to criticise China, even in essays, because they are worried that their fellow Chinese students will attack them.

When dissenting Chinese students are ostracised by student organisations, this harms the dissenting students, who lose the valuable cultural connections and support that student organisations provide. It also harms the majority of PRC students, who never get the opportunity to debate ideas suppressed in the PRC media, and who accept too frequently that the views of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are correct and normal.

What right do universities have to intervene in student organisations?

As a rule, academic freedom should apply to everyone in the university. While it is reasonable to suggest that it should be restricted in some circumstances (for example, to restrict fascist organisations), the trend towards censoriousness on campus is also concerning. Free speech should be paramount, even when the CSSA says things people don’t like. Banning or restricting the CSSA, for example, would have no effect on the PRC but would irritate and harm many Chinese students.

It should not end there. Universities can actively facilitate diversity in debate. Responsible universities would prioritise funding to the setup of Chinese student groups without political alignment and to facilitating debate about contentious topics relating to China. They would also give prominent dissenters, like Wu Lebao, special support.

What do we need to do?

Australian universities have sometimes been naive about China. Chinese students have been admitted in large numbers without concern for their academic skills, taught without concern for their social and cultural needs, and little has been done to help them adapt to Australia and its culture. Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they feel disconnected from universities and turn to student organisations that speak their language and understand their culture.

Universities need to have the courage to do two contrasting things: they should both acknowledge that the opinions of the CSSA are opinions that many Chinese students hold, and provide avenues for alternative points of view. This would allow students to hear debates about China and reflect on China critically — something they cannot do within Chinese borders. This would not create a new band of anti-PRC revolutionaries, but it would do something rather rare at Australian universities — treat Chinese students as humans with the capacity for rational thought.