SYDNEY – China’s government and its supporters have monitored, harassed and intimidated pro-democracy Chinese students living in Australia, and Australian universities have failed to protect the students' academic freedoms, Human Rights Watch said in a report published Wednesday.
The fear caused by the intimidation — which includes classmates reporting the students’ activities to Chinese officials — has intensified in recent years, according to the report. Terrified of reprisals against their families in China, many Chinese students and academics in Australia now censor their behavior, despite being thousands of kilometers (miles) from Beijing.
“It was really heartbreaking how alone these students were and how vulnerable they are so far from home and feeling this lack of protection from the university,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. “Universities really fear a backlash from Beijing, so rather than discuss these issues openly, they are swept under the carpet. But we think they no longer can be.”
In three cases, police in China visited or asked to meet with the families of students because of the students’ activities in Australia, according to the report, based on interviews with 24 pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and 22 academics at Australian universities. Chinese authorities threatened to jail one student who posted pro-democracy messages on Twitter in Australia, and confiscated the passport of another who expressed support for democracy in front of classmates in Australia, Human Rights Watch said.
Those cases have caused particular alarm for Chinese students across Australia, McNeill said.
“These are all one-child families and they would so dearly love the freedom in Australia that other young people enjoy,” McNeill said. “But they can’t, because they live in fear of something happening to their parents.”
All students interviewed by the group said they were afraid their actions in Australia could prompt Chinese officials to punish or interrogate their families in China. Because of that, most said they censored their own words and activities in Australia. More than half the academics interviewed, who were either from China or studying China, said they also regularly censored themselves when talking about China.
“This is the reality,” one student told Human Rights Watch. “I come to Australia and still I’m not free.”
The Chinese embassy in Australia called the report “rubbish.”
“Human Rights Watch has decayed into a political tool for the West to attack and smear developing countries,” the embassy said in a statement. “It is always biased on China.”
The issue is financially and diplomatically sensitive for Australian universities, which have been encouraged by the government to build partnerships with China and have made billions of dollars in the process.
International education is one of Australia’s top exports, contributing 40 billion Australian dollars ($30 billion) to the nation's economy in 2019. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40% of all international students in Australia came from China, according to a 2019 report by the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian think tank.
But Australia’s decision to close its borders in March 2020 in response to the pandemic left foreign students unable to enter the country. As a result, universities lost AU$1.8 billion ($1.4 billion) in revenue last year and are expected to lose another AU$2 billion ($1.5 billion) this year, according to Universities Australia, an umbrella group of the nation’s universities. A recently announced pilot program would allow some international students to begin returning to Australia later this year.
The issue of foreign interference is especially thorny for Beijing. In 2018, Australia introduced laws widely seen as a means of preventing covert Chinese interference in Australian politics, universities and other institutions. The laws enraged China and stoked increasing tensions between the nations.
Most of the students who were harassed told Human Rights Watch they didn’t report the incidents to their universities because they believe the schools care more about maintaining their relationships with Beijing.
Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the report was both sobering and unsurprising. She urged Chinese students and staff to report any harassment to their universities.
Jackson denied universities had turned a blind eye to Chinese interference and said they were actively trying to combat the problem by working alongside security agencies as part of the government’s University Foreign Interference Taskforce that was formed in 2019.
“Free debate, open intellectual inquiry, the contest of ideas is at the absolute center of everything Australian universities do,” Jackson said. “Why would we not be in support of the very thing that defines us?”
More publicity surrounding the threats could help deter them from happening, McNeill said. Human Rights Watch urged the government to publish an annual report documenting harassment and censorship of international students, and to establish a mechanism for students to report any intimidation, censorship or retaliation involving foreign governments. The group also encouraged universities to report such incidents to law enforcement.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said he was considering the report’s recommendations and seeking advice from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is conducting an inquiry into national security risks affecting higher education.
“There are some deeply concerning issues raised in this report,” Tudge said in a statement. “Any interference on our campuses by foreign entities cannot be tolerated.”