Australia ‘copying China’ by excluding foreign academics

As Australia struggles to defend its civic values from foreign interference, critics say translators’ banning shows those values are being undermined from within

September 11, 2020
Australia immigration stamp

Australia’s banning of two Chinese academics is ironic evidence of Beijing’s malign influence on Australian values, China scholars say, as Canberra adopts some of the communist state’s security methods.

Australia has cancelled the visas of translators Li Jianjun and Chen Hong, reportedly because of adverse assessments from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio). The assessments are understood to stem from their membership of a WeChat group involving a parliamentarian under Asio investigation.

Asio has not responded to media questions about the matter, saying that it does not comment on “intelligence matters”.

Professor Chen and Mr Li have longstanding associations with Australia and have visited many times. The two manage Australian studies centres at Shanghai’s East China Normal University and Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), teaching courses on Antipodean culture and literature.

Mr Li declined an interview with Times Higher Education, saying he had been advised that speaking to the media would not help his case, but said that Asio’s assessment was incorrect. “The WeChat group was simply a friendly social chat group [with] no intention of influence or interference attempted at all,” he said.

Professor Chen said that he had initially dismissed the notification of his visa cancellation as “fraud spam”. He protested to immigration authorities about the “gross mistake” but his email went unanswered.

Writing in China’s Global Times tabloid, he said Australia was mimicking the US in “ravaging” mutually beneficial academic and cultural exchanges. He said that he was one of China’s most “outspoken advocates” of a better understanding with Australia, publishing and teaching about Antipodean literature, culture and society, “only to be deemed a risk to Australia’s security”.

“Some of my perspectives are critical of Canberra’s China policy,” he acknowledged, suggesting that Australian authorities were “scared of such candid opinions”.

David Brophy, a University of Sydney historian specialising in China and inner Asia, said that Australia – like China – had become a country that “bans foreign academics with critical views of its policies”.

“When China invokes vague security concerns to restrict the entry of foreign academics, Western academia unanimously disapproves of that. We’ve ended up in more or less the same situation.”

Dr Brophy said Chinese Australian colleagues were expressing reluctance to voice criticisms of Australia-China relations, afraid of becoming “the next object of investigation for foreign interference” because they engaged with people in China in the course of their work. “These things seem to be potential triggers for the security agencies to take an interest.”

Mr Li is secretary general of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies and has held visiting fellowships at the Australian National University, La Trobe University and King’s College London. He is a second-generation member of a vibrant academic exchange community that began when a group of middle-aged Chinese postgraduates – nicknamed the “Gang of Nine” – arrived at the University of Sydney in 1979 to study literature and linguistics.

He took over running BFSU’s Australian Studies Centre from Hu Wenzhong, a Gang of Niner who founded the centre in 1983, and is now a PhD candidate with Western Sydney University (WSU).

Mr Li is seeking to have the visa cancellation overturned, with the university’s assistance. In a message to other Chinese students, vice-chancellor Barney Glover reassured them that WSU was “committed to providing a safe, supportive and harmonious environment for your learning and research”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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