17 Aug Unis warned on Chinese influence
Saturday 17 August – Max Koslowski & Nick Bonyhady – The Sydney Morning Herald
Four Liberal MPs have warned that the Chinese Communist Party holds too much influence over Australian universities, adding their voices to a growing chorus of federal politicians looking to reassess the government’s China strategy.
Thousands of pro-democracy and pro-Communist Party protesters clashed in capital cities on Friday night following an unprecedented week of rising tensions in Hong Kong.
Queensland senator Amanda Stoker, freshman Sydney MP Dave Sharma, and Victorian backbenchers Tim Wilson and James Paterson warned that university administrators must remain vigilant to ensure not only free speech is protected when managing the clashes, but national security as well. Senator Stoker and Mr Wilson are members of the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
It comes after Education Minister Dan Tehan on Saturday urged universities to subscribe to the model free speech code proposed by former High Court chief justice Robert French in his government-commissioned review released this year.
Senator Stoker said universities were battling through a “crisis of leadership” on foreign influence.
“[There is a] reluctance in their administrations to defend the rights of non-CCP aligned students who dare to speak out against Beijing; it is legitimate to ask questions about how China came to have so much influence in these institutions,” she said.
This month, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed one student’s account of his family in China being approached by authorities after he participated in a pro-democracy Hong Kong protest in Brisbane.
Mr Sharma said he was concerned “some universities have become a little too dependent on foreign university students as a source of revenue” and may be favouring short-term financial interests over long-term national security concerns.
“It’s a good thing that Chinese students are getting exposed to our way of thinking, and an appreciation for the freedoms and liberty we have here,” he said. “We’ve seen that debates and lectures have been shut down or silenced because they don’t agree with the mainland Chinese world view.
“That’s something we need to guard against.”
More than 700,000 international students study in Australia – the backbone of the country’s $17 billion education export sector – of which more than one in four students are Chinese.
Victorian senator James Paterson said recent restlessness in Hong Kong had shone a spotlight on the foreign influence risks at Australian universities.
“I’ve been concerned for some time about attempted foreign interference in Australian universities, both as a by-product of the hunger for international students and more deliberate efforts at influence,” he said.
“Our universities must understand their obligation to ensure the values we espouse as a nation are upheld on campus too, including free speech, the right to protest and academic freedom.
“It’s also vital that our foreign influence laws are complied with in both letter and spirit.”
Mr Wilson agreed, saying Australia must “keep a watchful eye that universities not become a vehicle for foreign governments to exercise soft influence in Australia”.
The four Liberals join Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, who recently argued “choices will be made for us” unless Australia revisited its approach to China.
Thousands of protesters attended rallies in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide on Friday night days after Hong Kong students in Australia said further violent clashes with pro-China students were likely.
Australian National University and the University of Technology Sydney placed security guards at pro-democracy “Lennon Walls” – named after a Cold War-era wall in the Czech Republic where dissidents wrote messages inspired by the Beatles singer John Lennon – after several were dismantled by pro-Party Chinese students.
The University of Sydney said Chinese international students were integral to campus life and Australia’s foreign interests.
“We are proud of the contribution our international students make to the academic and cultural life of the university, including our students from China,” a spokeswoman said.
“We believe international students serve a key role in Australia’s foreign policy agenda. Australia and the world require graduates who are not just technically competent but who can become the leaders our societies need – global citizens.”
An Australian National University spokesman said the university wouldn’t tolerate violence or harassment on campus.
“ANU is a community of diverse backgrounds and many different views and experiences. Each member of our community is entitled to share their views, and to disagree with the views of others. We expect, however, that this contest of ideas will remain respectful even in the midst of the most robust of debates.”