In recent years, the idea that Australian universities should engage more closely with China has become an unquestioned mantra among most of the country’s vice-chancellors. We are told repeatedly that not only should we continue to welcome thousands of Chinese students to Australia (on which much recurrent university funding now depends), we must also encourage large-scale Chinese funding and investment in our tertiary sector.
The problem is that China is fashioning a new world order in its own interests. Despite all its denials, its domestic and international strategies represent the biggest piece of geo-economic, geopolitical and geo-military engineering ever attempted by a nation state. Moreover, the Chinese regime is not remotely concerned about the values of the countries it seeks to exert control over, having loaned large sums of money to both left- and right-wing governments, and to dictatorships and democracies alike. Nor does it care about corruption, political repression, violence against ethnic minorities, systemic abuses of human rights, or poor employment and environmental standards.
China’s activities in Australia’s university sector are merely the continuation of state business as usual overseas. Clive Hamilton’s 2018 book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, describes “the insidious silencing effect of the research money pouring into Australian universities” from state-sanctioned Chinese sources; the demands for apologies from lecturers who have questioned the legitimacy of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea; and the verbal and cyber-threats made against Australian-Chinese students and academics who speak out against China.
It also documents how, more than a decade ago, the Chinese government targeted universities in Australia, as well as the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, for infiltration by its agents. It identifies “at least 17” scientists with links to the Chinese military working on sensitive military projects in Australian universities.
But vice-chancellors have not learned the lessons of Hamilton’s book. Last September, for instance, Melbourne’s Victoria University cancelled the screening of a documentary, In the Name of Confucius, which claims that Confucius Institutes promote Chinese influence. The decision was reportedly made under pressure from the Chinese Consulate, the director of the university’s Confucius Institute and the dean of its business faculty. While the excuse was that the screening “would take place in the same building” as the Confucius Institute, it is easy to surmise that the real reason was the risk of offending China and losing valuable income from Chinese students.
Readers of Times Higher Education will be well aware of growing concerns about the activities of the 516 Confucius Institutes that operate at universities outside China, and several countries, including the US, have announced inquiries into their activities.
In Australia, the Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo had his Australian passport cancelled and was banned from returning to Australia in February for allegedly using donations to buy political influence for the Chinese Communist Party. Huang had also provided the bulk of the start-up funding for the pro-Beijing Australia China Research Institute at the University of Technology Sydney in 2014. The remainder was donated by another Chinese businessman, Zhou Chulong, a close associate of Huang. Both were previously involved with the Beijing-controlled Australia Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. Is this the kind of funding we want to bring into our university sector?
Another publisher, Cambridge University Press, came under fire in 2017 for removing articles and book reviews from its China Quarterly website after China’s education ministry threatened to block access to the site (although the publisher later reversed this decision). A third, Springer Press, was criticised for its decision in 2018 to remove 1,000 articles from its website that contained sensitive words, such as “Tiananmen Square”, “Tibet” and “human rights”. Further pressure was applied to Western publishers in January when several were informed that any publications critical of China would be banned and they needed “to employ better self-censorship” in the future.
Do we really need to remind ourselves that the Chinese Communist Party does not believe that academics should be free to criticise those in power? On several occasions, Xi Jinping has declared that the Communist Party is “waging a war against Western values” and Enlightenment ideals, and it is now engaged in a systematic and repressive campaign to curb freedom of expression among both academics and students in its domestic university sector. A recent example was the suspension by Tsinghua University of the liberal law professor, Xu Zhangrun, for writing articles critical of Xi Jinping’s economic and social policies.
Taking these facts into account, it is reasonable to conclude that it would be an act of supreme folly for Australian universities to engage more closely with China. If it isn’t, our vice-chancellors have a duty to explain why not.
Nick Forster is a writer and business consultant based in New South Wales. Before leaving academia in June 2015, he had worked at universities in the Arabian Gulf, Australia and the UK.