08 Aug UNSW accused of dishonesty after sending ‘completely contrary’ statements regarding China
Bang Xiao and Stephen Dziedzic – ABC online – Saturday 08 August 2020
Federal MPs have accused the University of New South Wales of cowardice as it continues to grapple with a free speech controversy sparked by an article about the Chinese Government’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Last weekend UNSW deleted a tweet
publicising a call by adjunct law lecturer and internationally recognised expert Elaine Pearson for the United Nations to take action on human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
The tweet drew an angry response from some Chinese students at the university and was lashed by state-owned media in China.
But the university’s decision drew a political backlash in Canberra, and on Wednesday UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs sent a message to staff conceding the tweet should not have been taken down.
“I apologise for this mistake and reaffirm unequivocally our previous commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom,” Professor Jacobs said.
He also stressed that UNSW “does not take official political positions”, and said the Twitter post was deleted because it was “misconstrued as representing the University”.
But now the university is under fire for a separate message, sent two days earlier to some Chinese students and business partners, by the CEO of UNSW Global, Laurie Pearcey.
Mr Pearcey’s message was in Chinese language, and also said the tweet was deleted because it was incorrectly interpreted as an official statement of UNSW’s position on Hong Kong.
But unlike Professor Jacobs, Mr Pearcey did not reaffirm the university’s commitment to freedom of expression or concede it was a “mistake” to delete the tweet.
“UNSW regrets any anxiety or distress caused to anyone as a result of the diversity of views which are expressed at the University” the message reads.
Now several federal MPs have accused the University of New South Wales of dishonesty.
“It’s simply not tenable for UNSW to be advocating academic freedom in English, but [being] apologetic for it in Mandarin,” said Liberal MP Dave Sharma.
Liberal senator James Paterson also took aim at UNSW.
“I was heartened by Professor Jacobs’ strong statement in support of free speech to his academic staff, but then dismayed to read other senior university officials sending a very different message to a different audience in a different language,” he said.
“It makes UNSW’s other statements seem insincere. Academic freedom is a value which must be consistently embraced by everyone in university administration, not selectively supported when it’s convenient.”
When he was asked about the controversy on Sydney radio station 2GB, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not criticise the university, but said: “I think people have always got to tell the same story wherever they are.
“I find in managing the relationship with China, you’ve just got to be consistent, and I always am. The Government is always, and Australia always is. And I think everyone should follow that path.”
Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, who first drew attention to the deleted UNSW Twitter post, said the university had further damaged its reputation.
“The statement in Chinese … expressed a completely contrary intention to the English statement,” Badiucao told the ABC.
“In the Chinese statement, the university has ingratiated itself with the Chinese market and politics, but failed to mention the freedom of speech at all.”
Badiucao said he drew attention to the episode after several pro-democracy Chinese international students approached him on Twitter.
“There are also many young people from mainland China who are keen to have a safe environment that ensures their freedom of speech. That’s why they decided to study overseas,” he said.
“But the Chinese statement was sent in defiance of concerns and fear from those students.”
The controversy coincides with a Federal Government announcement that it will conduct a review into the
higher education sector’s approach to free speech.
Former Deakin University vice-chancellor Sally Walker will investigate whether universities are implementing a new code for free speech written by the former High Court chief Justice Robert French.
Education Minister Dan Tehan said the review would consider the institutional responses to the new code and “offer suggestions where alignment could be improved”.
“The test of our commitment to free speech is whether we are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom we most disagree,” Mr Tehan said.
“Universities must be leaders when it comes to defending those freedoms.”
Song Wu, a postgraduate Chinese student at UNSW, was one of hundreds of students who demanded UNSW make an official apology over the Twitter post.
Mr Wu moved to Sydney from China’s western province of Sichuan two years ago to study computer science.
He said he was “shocked” when he saw the university posted the article that largely quoted political views from Ms Pearson.
He said he agreed that Ms Pearson’s right of freedom of speech should be respected, but he “couldn’t understand” the university’s decision to post her comments.
“How can we — students from China — understand that our beloved university supports the view that splits the sovereignty of our motherland?” Mr Wu told the ABC.
He said he was disappointed that the university used two narratives for different audiences.
He said he believed it was an “ugly” attempt to secure the Chinese market, while also supporting political views against China.
“I think it’s funny. If you want to have your cake, and eat it, you need a better strategy,” Mr Wu said.
“They seemed to think no-one would compare those two statements.”