Scholars divided on curbing foreign influence on campus

Two different groups of dozens of Australian academics specialising in China studies have written separate open letters with opposing views but both purporting to be in support of academic freedom, as a controversial new law to restrict foreign influence is being considered by an Australian parliamentary committee.

The letters specifically address China’s role in influencing Australian politics, business, media and university campuses, but one group opposes the new law saying it will hamper the academic freedom of scholars who comment publicly on China issues; while the other supports the law, saying it is vital to curb China’s “unacceptable interference” in the country’s society and politics which hampers open discussion and academic freedom by silencing many voices.

Some commentators have characterised the emergence of opposing views as ‘rival’ academics. However, others said it was a reflection of the plurality of academic freedom and a vibrant democratic process.

“As in any debate, Australia’s academics hold more than one view,” Rory Medcalf, an international security expert at Australian National University, said in a Tweet. Medcalf is a signatory to the open letters in support of the new law.

A recent submission to the Australian Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, signed by more than 30 China scholars in Australia and calling themselves ‘Concerned Scholars of China’, was published as an open letter by the Policy Forum of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, criticising the Australian government’s proposed law.

According to the academics, new laws curbing foreign influence “would imperil scholarly contributions to public debate on matters of importance to our nation”.

Describing the new law as a “threat to intellectual freedom” the scholars said “a healthy media environment relies on the participation of scholars to contribute their expertise, particularly in fields such as ours which cultivate specific regional knowledge. We view our contributions as part of our role as scholars and educators”.

“Scholars in our field frequently receive requests to discuss issues that touch on questions of national security, and we anticipate such requests only becoming more frequent as discussion surrounding the People’s Republic of China encounters issues of political interference, espionage, and the possibility of regional conflict.”

They noted that exemptions have been agreed for journalists, but “this does nothing to assuage our concern that the freedom of scholars to fulfil their public function will be threatened by these laws”.

In support of the new law

A week later, on 27 March, another group of academics calling themselves ‘Scholars of China, the Chinese diaspora, China Australian relations and Australia’s relations with China’ published their own open letter, describing the debate on Chinese influence in the country and in universities as “valuable and necessary”.

The letter with 30 original signatories, and another 35 added after publication, includes as a signatory Feng Chongyi, a China expert at the University of Technology Sydney, who had been held on the Chinese mainland for more than a week in April last year, sparking an outcry among human rights groups and academics. It also includes some scholars in Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States.

“We believe that some of the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] activities constitute unacceptable interference in Australian society and politics,” the letter said. Among them it listed interference in academic freedom and the establishment of Chinese government-backed organisations on university campuses used for monitoring Chinese students. Some of these have already been detailed in other submissions to the parliamentary committee.

“We believe that people of Chinese origin in Australia, whether citizens of this country or not, expect and deserve the same freedoms as others in our democratic system: to express opinions on any question, and to support or criticise any policy,” the scholars said.

“Whether a scholar at an Australian university, or a student from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, all should be able to express their point of view free of fear or censorship, whether from forces foreign or domestic,” they said, a reference to attempts by the Chinese government to censor views that do not conform to the ‘One China’ policy, which precludes open discussion of independence for Hong Kong or Taiwan, and other sensitive issues such as Tibet.

They said where clear evidence of such activity exists, the Australian authorities should be “willing and able to take appropriate steps to counter foreign interference and threats to sovereignty”. They recognised “concern that existing legislative instruments are not sufficient for these purposes” and acknowledged the need for “laws suitable to today’s circumstances”.

Racism argument

Beijing’s efforts to interfere in Australia and influence the local Chinese community are increasingly bold and the debate was “essential to intellectual freedom, democratic rights and national security”, the letter said, adding “We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism.”

“We are mindful also that racism is precisely the accusation that is encouraged and levelled by the (Chinese Communist Party) itself as it tries to silence the current discussion.”

The Concerned Scholars of China group opposing the law had said in their open letter that the proposed law was fuelling an “alarmist debate” which is often characterised as “racist” in nature.

“Chinese Australians should be able to speak out without facing accusations that they speak on behalf of hostile foreign interests,” they said, expressing concern this was encouraging “suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese Australians in general”.

The parliamentary committee will report in April.