Beware ‘kidnap diplomacy’ in China, universities warned

Sector should be ‘cyber-savvy’ but embrace Chinese STEM PhDs, conference hears

October 7, 2021
China police
Source: iStock

Universities must be wary of “kidnap diplomacy” when they send academics to China, but they must also avoid an “overcorrection” by discouraging Chinese research students, according to Deakin University security expert Greg Barton.

Professor Barton told the Australian International Education Conference that universities needed to be “more risk-averse” about sending people to China, along with Iran and Turkey. He said that Beijing’s detention of the “two Michaels” from Canada, in apparent retaliation to the 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, illustrated the dangers.

The “theatre” of the Canadian men’s release following Ms Meng’s repatriation last month was “another own goal” for China, said Professor Barton, chair in global Islamic politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

“Hostage-taking is a reality in China,” he said. “We need to accept that if we’re sending personnel to China today, particularly if they were born in China or have Chinese heritage.”

He said that China-related anxieties exerted a “psychological” toll in the West. “I wish for China’s sake that it wasn’t doing so poorly at projecting itself to the world because it’s undermining its own interests and all of our interests. But this period will pass. We just have to get through [it],” he said.

“We will have to think 10, 15, 20 and 30 years out how we engage with China. We’re moving away from being so invested in China, but [it] remains big and important for everyone and no one wants a confrontation. Engagement is the way forward even if China is not doing a very good job of making itself likeable, at least as far as the Communist Party leadership is concerned.”

Professor Barton presented Australian survey findings suggesting that Chinese president Xi Jinping evoked the least confidence of any major world leader apart from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Relations with China ranked fourth in a list of Australian security threats, below cyberattacks, climate change and epidemics, with respondents were also worried about a military conflict over Taiwan.

Ninety-five per cent of Australians supported efforts to reduce economic dependence on China, and 57 per cent backed restrictions on joint research in defence and security-related fields.

But Professor Barton said universities should not be “excessively concerned” about Chinese students in Australia, including postgraduates in science and technology fields. “We need to be cyber-savvy when it comes to managing our own data, but we shouldn’t see ghosts in every corner,” he told the conference.

“Even if somebody is sent by their government to try and get knowledge to help their military programme, there’s still the wonderful opportunity in the educational experience of them being transformed. As this student becomes a senior leader, she – through her experience of living in Australia – tips this curve around from China being isolationist and defensive to much more open and trusting and engaging.”

Professor Barton said that the “bureaucratic burden of reporting” of universities’ international engagement had become excessive. “We need as an industry sector to push back and say, ‘Let’s be realistic about this. Let’s not talk ourselves into a moral panic’. We can only solve these problems by engaging.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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