In the Australian capital of Canberra, the Chinese Consulate helped the CSSA organize a large student rally welcoming Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his March visit. Arriving at 5 a.m., students came in shifts to cheer on Li and drown out Tibetan protesters, according to Fairfax Media and Four Corners. Lupin Lu, the student president of the Canberra University Students and Scholars Association, told a reporter that if dissident students organized a human rights protest against the Chinese government, she would “definitely” tell the Chinese Embassy, “just to keep all the students safe, and to do it for China as well.”
This type of student monitoring creates an environment where Chinese students are less willing to speak up in class out of fear their contrarian thoughts could get back to Chinese officials and impact their futures. Associate professor Sally Sargeson of Australian National University in Canberra told Forbes that all the Chinese students she spoke with said they “know they are being monitored, and adjust their speech so they will not get into trouble.”
Some Chinese students have also reported on professors who made statements in the classroom that didn’t align with the Communist Party line. Last year several such instances came to light:
- In May, a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne used a test question that suggested Chinese officials only tell the truth when they are drunk. A student shared it online, leading to a strong backlash from Chinese nationals and a call from the Chinese Consulate. The school, which has 4,400 Chinese international students, suspended the lecturer and removed the textbook that included the question.
- In August, a computer science professor at Australian National University put up a slide that read, in English and Chinese, “I will not tolerate students who cheat.” Chinese students reported it as discrimination to the dean’s office and complained on the school’s Facebook page. The professor apologized.
- Again in August, as tensions rose between China and India over a border dispute in Doklam, students at the University of Sydney complained that an IT professor of Indian descent had, more than a year earlier, showed a map in class that labeled contested border regions as part of India. The lecturer apologized and said he regretted “any offense this may have caused.”
- Also in August, a University of Newcastle professor posted a list that referred to Taiwan as a country, which upset the Chinese students in the class. In a video of the exchange that followed, students claimed that referring to Taiwan as a country made them “feel uncomfortable.” The video, posted online, led to a Chinese outcry and complaints from the Chinese Consulate that the university had crossed a red line.
Kevin Carrico, an American professor teaching Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, said these cases—especially the last two—were disturbing. Regarding the controversy over the map, he noted: “Very troublingly, it was provided as evidence of an insidious Indian conspiracy in Australia to trick students into thinking these territories are the property of India. I think it was not a case of people being offended, but of people wanting to find a way to be outraged.” He believes there is a double standard: It would be unimaginable for the U.S. Consulate in China to intervene in the same way every time Chinese professors said something negative about the United States.
Carrico teaches a contemporary China class that discusses politically sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the status of Taiwan, and the South China Sea. About a third of his students are from mainland China, and he’s never experienced any pressure to curb his discussions on these topics, although students are often more open to discussing sensitive topics one-on-one during office hours. When one Chinese student asked not to participate in a current events project because she felt it was constantly bad-mouthing China, Carrico replied that instead of backing out, she should share her insights and alternative viewpoint.
“The only way to respond is to ensure everybody has a way to share their viewpoint: That includes the person who thinks Taiwan is a part of China, as well as someone like myself who thinks Taiwan is an independent country,” Carrico said.
To ensure that universities stop caving to Chinese pressure, Merriden Varrall of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes they need to stop relying so much on Chinese international students as a source of revenue. This money influences decisions at all levels, including the professors schools hire and what they teach in their classes. Varrall recommends finding other ways to fund the universities so they are less dependent on the tuition of foreign students.
“The biggest concern is that we have a particular set of values, worldviews, and national interests, and these other views begin to erode or challenge those perspectives and interests,” she said.
CHINESE INFLUENCE has also left its footprint on Australian politics. Until now, Australia has been one of the few democracies to allow foreigners to donate to political parties. A Fairfax Media–Four Corners investigation uncovered millions of dollars in campaign donations to Australia’s major political parties from wealthy Chinese businessmen with connections to the Communist Party. In return, politicians seem to have provided favors, Beijing-friendly policies, and access to the most powerful people in the country.
The most publicized case is that of the Labor Party’s Sen. Sam Dastyari, who resigned from the Australian Senate in December after Fairfax Media revealed Communist-linked Chinese donors paid for Dastyari’s travel and legal bills, a violation of party rules. Dastyari was also accused of being influenced by donors: In 2016, Dastyari went against the Labor Party’s platform by siding with China in its disputed claims over the South China Sea. “The South China Sea is China’s own affairs,” Dastyari said in a press conference with Chinese-language media. “On this issue, Australia should remain neutral and respect China’s decision.”