Australia cancels Chinese scholars’ visas

Literature specialists barred as Australia’s relationship with China sinks another notch

September 9, 2020
Li Jianjun
Li Jianjun

Two prominent Chinese humanities scholars have been banned from visiting Australia, in a sign that academics from both sides are threatened by the deteriorating bilateral relationship.

Australia’s government has cancelled the visa of Li Jianjun, secretary general of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies and director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Canberra has also revoked the visa of Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, according to the ABC.

Both men have apparently been caught up in a police and security agency investigation into allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics. It centres around their social media connections with John Zhang, a former staffer in the office of New South Wales parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane.

Mr Li and Professor Chen are understood to have been members of a WeChat group that included Mr Zhang. Its alleged purpose was to advance the interests and policy goals of China by helping Mr Moselmane advocate for Chinese state interests.

Professor Chen described the social media network – nicknamed the “Fair Dinkum group” – as “innocuous”, according to an ABC report. “Members used [it] to share jokes and funny memes, photos of personal excursions, fishing trips or drinks and [to] repost newspaper articles,” he told the broadcaster.

Professor Chen has a complicated relationship with Australia. While he regularly castigates its leadership through commentaries in the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times tabloid, he has a deep cultural interest in the country after completing his doctoral studies on Nobel prizewinning Australian author Patrick White.

Professor Chen visited Australia in 1991 at the invitation of former prime minister Gough Whitlam and translated during Mr Whitlam’s successor Bob Hawke’s 1994 visit to China.

Mr Li teaches courses on Australian literature and researches Australian authors who were translated into Chinese during the 1950s and 1960s. He first visited Australia in 2002 to undertake studies in Australian literature at Queensland’s Griffith University – his first trip overseas – and has maintained close contact with Australian scholars ever since.

He is now undertaking doctoral studies at Western Sydney University, which said the decision to cancel his student visa was “a matter for the Australian government”.

“Mr Li is completing his PhD with the university’s School of Humanities and Communication Arts, researching Australian literature,” a spokeswoman said. “He has an impressive track record as an Australian studies scholar in China.”

The visa cancellations have occurred against a backdrop of tit-for-tat accusations, threats and trade sanctions. It culminated in the evacuation of two China correspondents working for Australian media organisations and the detention of an Australian journalist employed by Chinese English language news channel CGTN.

China, for its part, says Australian authorities have raided premises and interrogated journalists working for the Xinhua News Agency, China Media Group and China News Service, apparently in connection with the investigation into Mr Moselmane.

China has told Australia that the deteriorating bilateral relationship could affect student enrolments from East Asia. In June, it warned its citizens to reconsider studying in Australia because of safety risks.

Australian academics have also been caught up in the geopolitical tensions. In 2017, University of Technology Sydney political scientist Feng Chongyi was detained and interrogated in China for undisclosed reasons.

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