China experts fear ‘chilling effect’ of Australian visa repeals

Chinese translators the latest victims as Australia’s security state applies the thumbscrews

September 13, 2020
Source: iStock

Australia’s cancellation of two Chinese researchers’ visas signals that academics may now attract suspicions previously reserved for foreign agents of influence, and critics warn that Canberra’s escalating security powers could have a “chilling effect” on academic expression in both countries.

China scholar David Brophy likened the treatment of the two academics to the sanctions imposed on billionaire property developer Huang Xiangmo, who was banned from Australia last year over political influence perceptions.

“They decided he was a risk of conducting foreign interference in the future,” said Dr Brophy, senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney. “They don’t have to provide any specific evidence. They can always come up with some kind of justification. If someone is deemed a risk, they can cancel the visa. Are we happy with people having these powers? I’m not.”

Australian academics have expressed shock at Canberra’s decision to rescind permission for Beijing academic Li Jianjun and his Shanghai colleague Chen Hong to visit Australia.

Security agency Asio has branded both men potential threats to national security, reportedly because they are in the same WeChat group as a parliamentarian it is investigating. Asio has refused to disclose reasons for the adverse assessments.

The episode is the latest in a string of security-related developments that have blindsided the higher education sector. Late last month the federal government launched a probe into foreign interference in universities, focusing on knowledge transfer that could subvert Australia’s interests.

It followed media reports suggesting that China’s Thousand Talents Plan recruitment scheme may be facilitating joint research into technology with military applications and the theft of Australian-funded intellectual property.

The government also intends to include universities in a plan to assume veto powers over agreements signed between Australian public entities and foreign governments. The Group of Eight, an association of the country’s leading research-intensive universities, says that this could undermine work already done with security agencies on guidelines to prevent foreign interference in the sector.

Many Australians are worried about China’s activities in places such as Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang as well as its potential influence in their homeland. But any danger posed by Mr Li or Professor Chen appeared remote.

The pair are translators of Australian literature and teach courses on Antipodean culture, in two of almost 40 Australian studies centres dotted around China. “There is a push to diminish, if not entirely sever, these connections…that allow for critical self-perspectives on both sides,” Dr Brophy warned.

Ying Jie Guo, chair of Sydney’s Chinese studies department, said that the “chilling effect” felt by Chinese scholars in Australia had preceded the visa cancellations. “Many…were already feeling nervous as the federal government began to look into the Thousand Talents Plan and the Confucius Institutes,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Chengxin Pan, associate professor of international relations at Deakin University, warned that Australia’s recent moves could trigger retaliation. “If China goes after ‘foreign influence’ with the same zeal as Australia has with ‘China influence’…I fear the escalation would next affect Australian studies programmes in China,” he tweeted.

Australian Catholic University historian Jon Piccini tweeted that the visa cancellation was reminiscent of Asio’s “worst Cold War excesses” and an “insult” to the idea of free speech. “Whatever your views on China, [the] banning of two Australian studies scholars with no explanation or evidence is fundamentally anti-democratic.”

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