Chinese students fear reprisals from their own government

Almost 160,000 students from China were enrolled in Australian universities in 2020. But, despite being thousands of kilometres from home, many Chinese students modified their normal behaviour and ‘self-censored’, according to a new study reported by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international human rights organisation.

Broadly aware that the Chinese government carries out surveillance in Australian universities of pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong, they censored themselves both to avoid threats and harassment from their Chinese classmates and because they feared being named in reports to authorities back home.

Academics whose work focuses on China have adopted self-censorship, the report says.

The Human Rights Watch report, They Don’t Understand the Fear we Have: How China’s long reach of repression undermines academic freedom at Australia’s universities, found that this atmosphere of fear had worsened in recent years, with free speech and academic freedom increasingly under threat.

But the students believe Australian universities have failed to do enough to protect them.

“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

“Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies. The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”

China a huge source of students

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some 40% of all onshore international students in Australia came from China. In fact, Chinese students comprised about one in 10 of all students attending Australian universities.

Even with Australia’s borders now closed because of the pandemic, international education remains among the nation’s top exports, although universities have been forced to put courses online because fewer international students remain in the country.

The Human Rights Watch report follows a 2019 research project into the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine academic freedom globally which included a proposed 12-point ‘code of conduct’ for colleges and universities to adopt in response to Chinese government threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars and educational institutions.

Surveillance, harassment, threats

For the new report, Human Rights Watch interviewed students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and 22 academics at Australian universities.

The report accuses the Chinese government of maintaining surveillance of Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students while they are studying in Australian universities.

The organisation also verified three cases of students whose families in China were visited or were requested to meet with police regarding the students’ activities in Australia, the report says.

“While this number is low (though other cases may not have been reported to Human Rights Watch), the fact this occurs at all is enough to keep thousands of other students on edge and fearful,” it states.

The Chinese authorities threatened one student with jail after the student opened a Twitter account while studying in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages. Another student, who expressed support for democracy in front of classmates in Australia, has since had their passport confiscated by Chinese authorities upon returning home.

Current threats to and limitations on academic freedom at Australian universities stem from China-related pressures, while documented cases exist of “harassment, intimidation, and censorship of students and academics from China”, it says.

Academics who criticised the Chinese government or expressed support for democracy movements would “pay a price” and these “corrosive dynamics” set in motion considerable self-censorship, the report states.

“Students said the fear of fellow students reporting on them to the Chinese consulate or embassy and the potential impact on loved ones in China led to stress, anxiety and affected their daily activities.”

The Human Rights Watch report says there was also widespread fear that what students did in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their parents back home. This “weighed heavily on the minds of every pro-democracy student interviewed”.

“It was a constant concern that had to be evaluated before decisions were made of what to say, what they could attend, and even with whom they were friends.”

The report notes that pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong experienced direct harassment and intimidation from Chinese classmates.

These included threats of physical violence, being reported on to Chinese authorities back home, being attacked online, or threatened with attacks.

“These acts occurred in various environments, including online, in-person, and on and off campus. Students were targeted for harassment and intimidation after being identified by their classmates as criticising the Chinese Communist Party, expressing support for democracy in China or Hong Kong, or if they attended a protest in support of Hong Kong democracy,” the report says.

But it also adds that this “abusive behaviour of intimidating or reporting on classmates did not represent most Chinese students in Australia, the majority of whom were not involved in political disputes or they chose to express their views peacefully”.

Instead, a small but highly motivated and vocal minority had the potential to influence many others, the report states, but many Chinese students said Australian universities had failed to address the problem.

They expressed disappointment and dismay that Australian universities were not doing enough to protect them and their academic freedom.

Fears reporting abuse

Most of the pro-democracy students interviewed who had experienced harassment and intimidation said they did not report it to their university, believing their university would not take the threat seriously, or that it was sympathetic to nationalistic Chinese students and gave priority to maintaining their relationship with the Chinese government.

Students and social media users supportive of the Chinese government have subjected academics to harassment and intimidation if the academics are perceived to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party or discuss “sensitive” issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong or Xinjiang in their classes, the report states.

The report quotes critics as saying that such incidents have taken place numerous times over the past few years on Australian campuses, and they continue to occur.

Interviewees attributed the recent increase in harassment and intimidation of students and academics to the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong, and Australian-based student involvement in demonstrations and expressions of solidarity with those back home.

They say the growing number of incidents should also be seen in the context of efforts by the Chinese government and Communist Party to influence and “call on” Chinese students studying abroad.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has designated them a “new focus of United Front Work”, referring to a department that monitors and tries to influence people inside and out of China who are not Communist Party members to curb criticism. Nearly all academics interviewed pointed to a marked increase in the level of nationalism among their students from China since President Xi came to power in 2013.

Culture of self-censorship

Both students from China and academics whose work focuses on China have adopted self-censorship as the most common strategy to avoid threats, harassment and surveillance.

As a result, frequent self-censorship on issues relating to China now threatens academic freedom in Australia, say critics of these developments. A significant majority of pro-democracy Chinese and Hong Kong students interviewed said they self-censored while studying in Australia, the report states.

More than half of the academics interviewed said they practised regular self-censorship while talking about China.

University administrators censoring staff had also occurred but was much less frequent, with examples of administrators asking staff not to discuss China publicly, or discouraging them from holding public China-related events or speaking to the media about sensitive China issues.