Parliament told China is trying to influence campuses

Organisations that promote the Chinese government’s official view, including on foreign affairs, are present on almost all Australian university campuses and in many scientific organisations, and are used as an extension of the Communist Party abroad, according to a submission to the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security detailing China’s influence in the country.

The Australian government has put forward a bill which aims to target “covert, deceptive or threatening actions by foreign actors who intend to influence Australia’s democratic or government processes or to harm Australia”, in the wake of a major debate last year on Chinese interference in Australian politics, business and academia.

The submission by Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, and Alex Joske, researcher and student at the Australian National University, point to the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) being present at nearly every university in Australia as an integral component of the Communist Party of China’s so-called United Front Work, which seeks to influence organisations in China and abroad.

CSSAs are “aimed primarily at monitoring the thoughts and behaviours of the 130,000 Chinese students on campuses across Australia”, according to the submission dated 22 January but issued last week by the parliamentary committee.

In particular, the presence of CSSAs at Australia’s top scientific research institutions, including the federal government science agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which employs thousands of scientists, “raises serious concerns about the potential for their networks to be used for industrial espionage”.

CSSAs are the core of Beijing’s presence on university campuses, the report notes, with at least 37 in Australia. Most were established under the direction of the Chinese government and are the largest Chinese student associations at most universities, the report says.

“Found at universities around the world, CSSAs play a central role in the Chinese government’s efforts to monitor, control and intervene in the lives of Chinese students in Australia and to limit academic freedom on universities,” it said, adding: “CSSAs often attempt to downplay or hide the fact that they are guided by the Chinese government.”

But the submission notes, for example, that Murdoch University’s CSSA openly states it was established by the Chinese embassy. Similarly, the University of Adelaide CSSA’s constitution describes it as being under the direction of the Chinese embassy’s Education Office.

CSSA representatives in New South Wales and Victoria attend similar annual meetings at the consulates in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. The New South Wales CSSA’s 2017 annual general meeting was held at the Sydney Chinese Consulate’s Education Office, and two consuls at the Sydney Education Office are listed on its website as responsible for work relating to CSSAs, the submission says.

‘Patriotic education’

CSSA work focuses on “patriotic education”, with CSSAs tasked with ensuring Chinese students “remain patriotic and supportive” of Communist Party rule, but CSSAs are also used to mobilise Chinese students to oppose activities on campuses that might embarrass Beijing, according to the submission.

“As the Chinese government’s ears and eyes on university campuses, CSSAs are likely behind many of the incidents of students and lecturers being reported to Chinese authorities for comments that run contrary to the party line,” the submission stated.

It cites a recent example of a dispute between the Chinese consulate-general and the University of Newcastle after a lecturer showed a table that listed Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries. China regards these as ‘indisputable’ parts of China.

In another example, the president of the University of Canberra CSSA told the Australian broadcaster ABC and Fairfax Media that she would tell the Chinese embassy if a student was organising a human rights protest.

Science organisations

A number of Chinese scholars’ scientific associations in Australia are also actively engaged in aiding China’s scientific development – with the largest, the Federation of Chinese Scholars in Australia (FOCSA) “established under the guidance of the Chinese embassy”, the submission notes – and may even guide researchers to align their research with China’s own interests.

“Such groups foster and encourage ties between Chinese-Australian scientists and the Chinese government, help recruit scientists for Chinese universities and organise for China’s talent recruitment plans like the Spring Sunshine Plan and the Thousand Talents Plan, which are key to China’s strategy to draw in overseas scientists and technology,” according to the submission.

“Offering lucrative appointments, research funding and free trips to China, they facilitate information theft, whether deliberate or inadvertent,” the submission claims, adding that a 2015 United States FBI report concluded that talent recruitment plans, while not illegal, “pose a serious threat to US businesses and universities through economic espionage and theft of IP [intellectual property]”.

Talent recruitment programmes also play a role in determining the direction of overseas research, “aligning it with China’s economic and scientific interests”, according to the submission.

“Scientists are encouraged by such programmes to work in collaboration with Chinese scientists and to work on areas valued by China. Once scientists working in such areas prove their worth while working and studying overseas, they may then be enticed to return to China through talent recruitment programmes.”

Officials from the embassy’s Education Office often attend FOCSA’s meetings, which have been held at the Education Office’s headquarters, the submission notes. At FOCSA’S founding in 2004 then Chinese ambassador to Australia Fu Ying said she “hoped that experts and scholars would be able to transfer advanced technological achievements back to China”.

Influence not always apparent

Submission co-author Hamilton, whose own book about Chinese government methods to influence Australian organisations was cancelled by a major publisher fearful of the Chinese government reaction, argues that most forms of Chinese government influence are subtle and may not be so easily prosecuted under the proposed new laws.

He noted instances of a university publisher rejecting a manuscript critical of the Chinese Communist Party because it fears losing revenue from Chinese students, and research collaborations with Chinese universities which may not come under such laws.

China has also pressured overseas academic journals to remove online articles not in line with the Party versions of events.

Chinese response

In December, in response to the Australian government announcement of the proposed espionage bill amendments, China’s Communist Party organ the People’s Daily branded reports of Chinese interference in Australia as “paranoid”. Although the amendment does not mention China, Beijing has been particularly strident in condemning it.

“China does not interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs. We urge the relevant people in Australia to discard prejudice and speak and act more in a way that will be conducive to boosting the China-Australia relationship and deepening cooperation between them,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said last December.