Australian universities have failed to protect the academic freedom of students from China and of academics who criticize the Chinese Communist Party, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Pro-Beijing supporters and the Chinese government have also harassed and intimidated those who express support for democracy movements.
The 102-page report, “‘They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have’: How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities,” describes Chinese government surveillance of pro-democracy students from the mainland and Hong Kong in Australian universities. Students are broadly aware that such surveillance takes place, leaving them fearful. Many alter their behavior and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from classmates, and being “reported on” to authorities back home.
“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies. The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 “pro-democracy” students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and 22 academics at Australian universities. Even with Australia’s borders closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, international education remains one of the country’s top exports as universities put courses online and some international students remain in the country.
Human Rights Watch verified three cases of students in which the police in China visited or asked to meet with their families regarding the student’s activities in Australia. The Chinese authorities threatened one student with jail after the student opened a Twitter account while studying in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages. Another student, who expressed support for democracy in front of classmates in Australia, has since had their passport confiscated by Chinese authorities upon returning home.
Every pro-democracy student interviewed expressed fears that their activities in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their family back home. They said this was a constant concern that had to be evaluated before they decided what to say in class, what classes or events they could attend, and even with whom they could be friends.
Most said they self-censored while studying in Australia. “I have to censor myself,” said one mainland student. “This is the reality, I come to Australia and still I’m not free. I never talk about politics here.”
“The majority of students who experienced harassment didn’t report it to their university,” McNeill said. “They believe their universities care more about maintaining relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating students supportive of China’s Communist Party.”
More than half of faculty interviewed, selected because they are from or specialize in China studies, said they practiced regular self-censorship while talking about China. University administrators less frequently have censored staff, including by asking them not to discuss China publicly, or discouraged them from holding public China-related events, or speaking to the media about certain China issues.
Pro-Beijing students and social media users have also subjected some academics at Australian universities to harassment, intimidation, and doxing – posting their personal information – if the academics are perceived to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party or discuss “sensitive” issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, or Xinjiang. In 2020, pro-Beijing supporters bullied, harassed, and doxed an academic who described Taiwan as a country and spoke out in defense of a Taiwanese student. As a result, the Australian university temporarily removed the academic’s teaching profile from the university website.
This abusive behavior does not represent most Chinese students in Australia, the majority of whom do not get involved in political disputes and choose to express their views peacefully. Instead, it is carried out by a small but highly motivated and vocal minority.
Students and academics consistently raised concerns that students from China studying in Australia can live in an information vacuum because they rely on the heavily censored Chinese social media platform WeChat. The misinformation and lack of diverse views in this controlled environment are a potential motivating factor behind the harassment and intimidation of those who want to speak out or express different opinions.
Students and scholars identified additional problems, including the need to teach students stranded in China during the pandemic without adequate digital security, the extraterritorial reach of Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law, and the role of government-linked bodies like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
The Chinese government is growing bolder in its assaults on academic freedom around the world, Human Rights Watch said. Australia’s Department of Education should annually publish a report documenting incidents of harassment, intimidation, censorship, and self-censorship and steps taken by universities to counter those threats.
Australian universities and vice-chancellors should also speak out when these incidents occur, and publicly commit to protect academic freedom and ensure that students know that “reporting on” the activities of fellow students or staff to embassies is a serious violation of the student code of conduct and grounds for disciplinary action. The University Foreign Interference Taskforce should examine issues of harassment, intimidation, censorship, and self-censorship as a priority.
“Recent inquiries into freedom of speech and foreign interference in Australia’s universities have not adequately examined these issues,” McNeill said. “With new international student arrivals due to start again soon, universities should urgently review their policies and put in place new measures to safeguard the academic freedom of these students and staff.”
For selected accounts, please see below.
Names of all interviewees for this research have been withheld to protect their identity. All names used are pseudonyms.
Zhang Xiuying, a female student from China who attended a Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstration in Australia.
At around 2 a.m. I received a message from a mainland classmate. He was like, ‘I’m watching you.’ Personally, I felt really scared. I went to go see the uni psychologist because I was so stressed. I blocked him [the classmate] on Facebook. I was in a course with 98 percent mainland students. Students were bad-mouthing me. That I was not loyal to the country.
Li Wei, a student from mainland China, opened a Twitter account upon arriving in Australia to study.
I thought it was safe here. In March 2020, the local police department [in China] contacted my parents and asked my parents to come to the police station and issued an official warning and they told me to ‘shut the fuck up’ and that I will pay a very heavy price if I come back home. They said I must shut down my Twitter, stop spreading anti-government messages and if I don’t cooperate, they may charge me with a crime. I deleted the Twitter account. Because I’m worried about my parents.
Zhang Min, a student from mainland China, said that her self-censorship inhibited her study to such an extent that she decided to change university courses.
It definitely hinders your study. When I first came, I did a course that was about communications, and it placed a lot of importance on in class discussions. I didn’t feel like I could freely speak anything. So, this is one of the reasons I switched to a more technical course.
Academic “N” explained what happened to a mainland Chinese student after they gave a presentation in his class on Tibet.
One of the students discussed self-immolation in Tibet. Later she came to speak with me during office hours. She said her parents’ ‘superiors’ had been notified through one of their workplaces specifically about her Tibet presentation. There’s no other way for her parents to have learned about that other than a reporting mechanism. I would have liked to get to the bottom of how this happened but in a class of 80 or 90 students, it’s hopeless.
Academic “P” said a university official asked him to offer a “sanitized” version of his Chinese Studies unit.
When all our teaching went online, I got an email from IT leadership, saying they had set up a VPN [virtual private network] into China, there was some concern re the content of teaching. Another academic, who was also teaching another Chinese Studies unit, had offered a ‘sanitized’ version of that course for PRC students. Is that something I would be willing to consider for my course? I said, “No I’m not willing to do that.
Academic “T” described the impact of self-censorship on students and general class discussion.
I had a student from Taiwan. She came up after [class], she was so excited about our discussion on Hong Kong. She was asking me, ‘What do you think will happen in Taiwan?’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you speak up in class? I was really hoping you would!’ And she said, ‘I don’t know what my future holds. I might have to work on the mainland. I can’t afford to be reported on.’