Australia: Beijing endangers freedom of education

(Sydney) – Australian universities are failing to protect the academic freedom of Chinese students and academics who criticize the Chinese Communist Party, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Chinese government and students supporting the party regularly harass and intimidate those who have expressed support for pro-democracy movements.

The 102-page report, titled “‘They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have’: How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities” exercise by China undermines the academic freedom of Australian universities ”), describes the Chinese government’s surveillance of pro-democracy students from the mainland and Hong Kong on university campuses in Australia. These students, very aware of being the object of such surveillance, often feel a certain anxiety. Many change their behavior accordingly and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from classmates, and for fear of being subjected to a ” report To the Chinese authorities.

« Australian university administrators fail in their due diligence to uphold the rights of Chinese students Said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. ” Australian universities rely on tuition fees paid by overseas students, but turn a blind eye to Chinese students’ concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its supporters. These universities should denounce these practices, and take concrete measures to support the academic freedom of their students and teachers. »

Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 students ” prodemocracy From mainland China and Hong Kong, as well as 22 academics teaching in Australia. Even with Australia’s borders being closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, international education remains one of the country’s top exports as universities offer courses online and some students are still in the country.

In particular, Human Rights Watch was able to verify three cases of students in which police in China visited their families’ homes, or planned to do so, to discuss the activities of the student concerned. (e) in Australia. Chinese authorities have threatened a Chinese national who was studying in Australia with jail after he opened a Twitter account, on which he posted pro-democracy messages. Another student, who expressed his support for democracy in front of his classmates in Australia, has since had his passport confiscated by Chinese authorities upon his return to his country.

All of the pro-democracy students interviewed expressed fears that their activities in Australia could lead the Chinese authorities to retaliate against their families back home or that they be subjected to questioning. They say this is a constant concern when deciding what to say in class, what classes or events to attend, and even who to be friends with.

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Most said they self-censored while studying in Australia. ” I have to censor myself », Recognized a student from the continent. ” This is the reality, I am coming to Australia and still am not free. I never talk about politics here. »

« Majority of students who experienced harassment did not report it to their university Sophie McNeill said. ” These people think their universities care more about cultivating relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating other students who support the Chinese Communist Party. »

More than half of the teachers interviewed, selected because they are from China or specialize in Chinese studies, said they regularly practice self-censorship when they approach this country. Less often, university administrators have censored teaching staff, including asking them not to discuss China publicly, or advising them not to organize public events relating to that country, or to speak to the media about certain issues related to China. China.

Pro-Beijing students and social media users have also subjected some Australian academics to harassment, intimidation and doxing – the disclosure of their personal data on the internet. They were academics perceived to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party, or to have discussed issues. sensitive Such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong or Xinjiang. In 2020, pro-Beijing supporters intimidated and harassed an academic, also disclosing his personal data, after he described Taiwan as a country and stood up for a Taiwanese student. As a result, the Australian University has temporarily removed its profile from the University’s website.

This abusive behavior is not representative of most Chinese students in Australia, the majority of whom do not get involved in political conflicts and choose to express their views peacefully. On the contrary, it is the work of a very motivated minority who know how to make themselves heard.

Students and academics interviewed expressed continued concerns that Chinese students studying in Australia may live without information, as they are so heavily dependent on the heavily censored Chinese social network WeChat. Misinformation and the lack of diversity of opinion in this controlled environment are aggravating factors in the harassment and intimidation exercised against those who want to speak out or express different points of view.

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Students and academics identified additional issues, including the need to teach students stranded in China during the pandemic, and in the absence of adequate digital security, the extraterritorial reach of the draconian national security law in Hong Kong and the role of government-related organizations such as the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

The Chinese government is increasingly active in its attacks on academic freedom around the world, Human Rights Watch found. The Australian Department of Education is expected to publish an annual report documenting incidents of harassment, intimidation, censorship and self-censorship and the steps universities have taken to counter these threats.

Australian universities and deans should also speak up when such incidents occur and make a public commitment to protect academic freedom and ensure that students are aware that ” report »The activities of fellow students or staff at embassies constitute a serious violation of the code of conduct for students, which may be subject to disciplinary action. The University’s Foreign Interference Task Force should prioritize issues of harassment, intimidation, censorship and self-censorship.

« Recent surveys of freedom of expression and foreign interference in Australian universities have not sufficiently addressed these issues. Sophie McNeill concluded. ” With the imminent recovery of foreign student arrivals, universities should urgently review their policies and adopt new measures to protect the academic freedom of these students and their teaching staff. »

Selection of testimonials

All names used are pseudonyms, to protect the identity of those interviewed.

“Zhang Xiuying”, a Chinese student who took part in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong organized in Australia:

« At around 2 a.m., I received a message from a classmate on the mainland. His message read: “I am watching you”. I was very afraid. I went to the university psychologist because I was so stressed. I blocked him [le camarade de classe] on Facebook. I was in a class with 98% students from the mainland. They said bad things about me, that I lacked loyalty to the country. »

“Li Wei”, a student from mainland China, opened a Twitter account when he arrived in Australia to study:

« I thought I was safe here. In March 2020, the local police department [en Chine] contacted my parents to come to the station and issue an official warning, and they told me to “shut my mouth” and that I will pay dearly if I decide to go home. They said I had to shut down my Twitter account, stop the spread of anti-government messages and that if I didn’t cooperate they could charge me with a crime. I deleted my Twitter account. Because I worry about my parents. »

“Zhang Min”, a student from mainland China, explained that the self-censorship she imposed on her prevented her from studying to such an extent that she decided to change her course:

« It definitely hinders your studies. When I arrived, I took a communication course, which placed a lot of emphasis on class discussions. I didn’t feel like I could speak freely about anything. So that’s one of the reasons why I switched to a more technical education. »

Academic “N” described what happened to a student from mainland China after his talk on Tibet as part of the course he was teaching:

« One of the students brought up the subject of self-immolation in Tibet. Later, she came to confide during office hours. She said her parents’ “superiors” were briefed at one of their workplaces about her briefing on Tibet. There is no other way for his parents to have learned this than a monitoring mechanism. I would have liked to know how it happened, but in a class of 80 or 90 students, it is wasted effort. »

Academic “P” said an official asked her to come up with a “cleansed” version of her Chinese studies class:

« When all of our teaching went live, I got an email from the IT department, saying they had a VPN in place. [réseau privé virtuel] in China, there was some concern about the content. Another scholar, who also taught another Chinese studies module, offered a “ cleansed ” version of his course to students in the People’s Republic of China. Is this something that I would be willing to consider for my own course? I said, ‘No, I’m not ready to do that.’ »

Academic “T” described the impact of self-censorship on students and general classroom discussions:

« I had a student from Taiwan. She came after [le cours], she was so excited about our discussion about Hong Kong. She would ask me, “What do you think will happen in Taiwan?” I said to her, “Why didn’t you speak in class? I was really hoping you would! ”And she replied,“ I don’t know what the future holds for me. I may have to work in China. I cannot afford to be denounced. ” »

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