Australian universities have been slow to act against worrying violence and intimidation by pro-Chinese Communist Party students on campus.
Unwilling to upset their CCP-dependent business models, inaction has been prioritised at the expense of free debate.
On Wednesday, a Hong Kong democracy rally at the University of Queensland turned violent when 200 pro-CCP counter-protesters arrived.
In several shocking videos shared on social media, pro-CCP students can be seen screaming, ripping up posters, blasting out the Chinese national anthem and even punching and grabbing the neck of pro-Hong Kong students.
Worryingly, a Chinese Twitter account responded to a video I posted of the incident by declaring that the “students deserved it. But it was waste of time kicking the pig’s ass. They cant (sic) get rid of the habit of eating s…”.
This comes after Hong Kongers were violently attacked by masked thugs at a train station on the way home from a pro-freedom rally last weekend.
As well as ongoing concerns about freedom in Hong Kong, the alarming affair at the University of Queensland raises serious questions about how Australian universities’ dependence on Chinese international students compromises free intellectual inquiry.
The ability of pro-CCP forces to mobilise hundreds of people on one Australian campus in a couple of hours should raise eyebrows. There are more than 152,000 Chinese students at Australian universities, making up almost 40 per cent of Australia’s $34 billion international student market. (By comparison, there are 9000 students from Hong Kong.)
This places hundreds of thousands of students who have sympathies with, and are closely monitored by, a heavily authoritarian regime at our universities. This has a chilling effect on campus culture and classroom discussion. Professor Clive Hamilton, a former Greens candidate, meticulously catalogued a range of on-campus incidents and use of Chinese international students by the Chinese government in his book last year, Silent Invasion: China’s influence in Australia.
The large number of Chinese students could help explain the University of Queensland’s insipid response to recent events. Last month Hong Kong students began protesting at the university against the extradition law. Student newspaper Semper Floreat reports that, one day, campus security told them to pack up and leave, and instructed that “no political or religious protests would be permitted on campus grounds the following day”. This is an unacceptable demand for a university that exists to promote debate.
The subsequent day’s rally was ultimately allowed to go ahead on the condition no “discriminatory materials” would be present — raising questions about what is considered “discriminatory”.
In response to the incident this week, the university’s statement refused to explicitly name the pro-CCP students as the provocateurs or even mention the content of the protests. There was also no mention that students who were physically violent would be dealt with strictly by the university.
The statement simply reiterated that it expects “staff and students to express their views in a lawful and respectful manner, and in accordance with the policies and values of the university”.
The university’s policies provide little comfort. Its discrimination and harassment policy explicitly forbids “offensive language” based on “national or ethnic origin”.
This policy could be interpreted to effectively forbid students from criticising the actions of the CCP — because criticism of the Chinese government could be genuinely offensive to some based on their national origin.
The University of Queensland is also yet to adopt the model code on free speech proposed by former chief justice Robert French.
This is not the first time the actions of pro-China students have come under the spotlight. Last year Victoria University cancelled the screening of an anti-China documentary after pressure from the campus Confucius Centre and the Chinese consulate. In 2017, there were four known incidents, including a University of Sydney lecturer being forced to apologise for a map showing territory disputed by China, a University of Newcastle lecturer condemned on social media for a list showing Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate territories, and Monash University withdrawing a textbook because of a quiz question that offended Chinese students.
Students are also not the only conduit for influence. There is now a Confucius Institute at nine Australian universities, including many of the prestigious Group of Eight institutions such as the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, NSW, and Queensland. There is even one integrated into the NSW Department of Education.
These institutes are funded and overseen by the Hanban, a fully funded subsidiary of China’s Ministry of Education. Their formal mission is to promote Chinese language and culture, and in doing so provide an uncritical view of Chinese society. They typically include one local director and one Chinese director appointed by the Hanban, providing direct influence inside our universities.
The reputation of Australian universities is dependent on providing a high-quality education in an atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry. The thirst for Chinese student money must not be allowed to undermine the critical capacity of our higher-education institutions. The violence at the University of Queensland is an important reminder that universities need to get their internal affairs in line to protect free expression on campus.