‘Cowardice’: Australian universities accused of bowing to Chinese pressure

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The University of NSW has been accused of succumbing to the rage of Chinese students after deleting social media posts about human rights in Hong Kong. Experts say it’s not an isolated incident and that universities across the country are confronting a swell of political pressure from China.

UNSW tweeted an article on Friday with the headline: ‘China needs international pressure to end Hong Kong wrongs’.

The piece included a quote from the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, who claimed: “now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong".

But shortly after the piece was posted onto social media, a barrage of Twitter users who self-identified as Chinese students at the university, threatened they’d withdraw from UNSW unless it was removed.

Fergus Ryan is a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

He told The Feed that a carefully coordinated campaign was executed on the Chinese messaging application We Chat, where organisers advised supporters to use the hashtag ‘stop the wrong political view in our university’. 

The two main aims of the online protest were allegedly to pressure the university to delete the social media posts and to persuade the university to remove the piece from its website. 

Ryan said the campaign was largely successful and that “UNSW should not have acceded, and by doing so, it was an act of cowardice.”

In response, UNSW deleted the social media posts. They later labelled the article as ‘opinion’ and moved it into the ‘law’ section of the site.

Chinese state-owned media outlet the Global Times drew further attention to the campaign, writing that the “controversial article... agitated Chinese students at UNSW who labeled the move as blatant interference in China's internal affairs and support for Hong Kong independence."

The Global Times cited an anonymous student and claimed: “they are still negotiating with the university, and demanding an apology for its Twitter post.”

In a statement sent to The Feed, a UNSW spokesperson said the university “decided to remove the posts on our social channels as they were not in line with our policies.”

They also said: “the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university.” 

“UNSW protects academic freedom and freedom of speech, respecting the right of academics and others to express their views within the law,” the spokesperson added.

What was behind the outrage of Chinese students?

Many Chinese students would have been “shocked” by UNSW’s article as they whole-heartedly believe Hong Kong and Tibet are a part of China, according to Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an analyst at ASPI.

“It’s as if the uni is now saying the earth is not round; to the students it’s unimaginable, it’s unthinkable and it’s something that needs to be corrected,” Xu said.

Chinese students are predominately patriotic and “grow up in an environment where there is little criticism of the party,” she said.

“It doesn’t take a Chinese government conspiracy. The government doesn’t have to do much at all when students are so passionate about these issues.”

Xu believes Chinese students implement a type of ‘double political correctness’ when they come to Australia. It’s an idea that’s been posed by Kevin Carrico, an American lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University.

“The first is Beijing's red line and the second is Western political correctness that you cannot offend or be racist,” she said.

“They treat Hong Kong as being a part of China as part of the truth and if you disagree, you’re racist and offending China.”

Growing Chinese influence in Australian universities

 UNSW is not the first university to be accused of capitulation when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party.

According to government data, more than 152,000 Chinese students enrolled in universities in 2018.

Of overseas enrolments in the same year, more than 38 per cent of university students were from China. 

“The fact that these students think they can cancel someone, they can silence someone is because they understand they hold this power,” Xu told The Feed.

“They pay all these fees, they are big in number. That’s why they’re doing this in the first place.”

In 2013, the University of Sydney was accused of cancelling a visit by the Dalai Lama to avoid straining its relationship with China.

More recently, the University of Queensland was met with a barrage of criticism for suspending student activist Drew Pavlou in May after he staged several pro-Hong Kong protests last July.

Pavlou told The Feed that he was assaulted three times at one of the protests. 

“In the first outbreak of violence on the day, I was sitting down, staging a peaceful sit-in,” he said.

“There were some Chinese people who approached me and ripped the microphone from me. They punched me in the ribs and side of the mouth. Later, another guy punched me in the back of the head,” he added. 

“Other Hong Kong students were bitten, some girls had their dresses ripped and another Hong Kong student was choke slammed to the ground.” 

Student activist Drew Pavlou

UQ has strongly rejected that Pavlou’s suspension is related to free speech or political motivations.

UQ found that Pavlou had engaged in two allegations of serious general misconduct. The university has confirmed that he’s since been banned from enrolling in the university until December 2020.

“As a consequence of his suspension from the University for Semester 2, 2020, Mr Pavlou is no longer legally eligible to sit on the University Senate as an elected undergraduate student member,” a statement from UQ Chancellor Peter Varghese read.

The first allegation was related to Pavlou’s conduct on a Facebook page known as UQ Stalkerspace. 

The second was turning up to the UQ Vice-Chancellor, Peter Høj’s, office wearing a hazmat suit before hanging a sign on the door that said: “Covid-19 Biohazard: Condemned.”

Pavlou told The Feed that it was not because the Vice-Chancellor had the virus or that there was an issue onsite related to coronavirus, but rather, it was a political statement to criticise China’s handling of COVID-19. 

“Neither of the findings of serious misconduct concerned Mr Pavlou’s personal or political views about China or Hong Kong,” Varghese said.

“The University has consistently said that no student should be penalised for the lawful expression of personal views.”

But Pavlou disagrees, claiming the university is punishing him for not rolling over when it comes to his political beliefs.

 “What happened is they had the starting point of wanting to expel me. They looked through everything they could and threw the entire book at me,” Pavlou alleged.

This year, Pavlou began Supreme Court proceedings to sue the university, as well as its chancellor and vice-chancellor. He is seeking $3.5 million in damages for breach of contract and defamation.

Surveillance and intimidation

A report from Human Rights Watch found Chinese authorities conduct surveillance on both Chinese students and academics. 

The organisation interviewed academics who said those who do not tow the government line have reported their families in China being threatened. 

“Others described students from China remaining silent in their classrooms, fearful that their speech was being monitored and reported to Chinese authorities by other students from China,” the report claimed.

Xu said there has long been an understanding “that all this protesting against dissent on China has caused a chilling effect”.

“I have personally heard from academics who say students who are critical of China are afraid of speaking out in class for fear of being reported in their class. Professors tend to be more careful when they mention China,” she added.

Pavlou said while he continues to receive death threats, the greatest victims are Hong Kong and Chinese pro-democracy students who have been “intimidated into silence and fear what will happen if they speak out.”

He told The Feed that many international students have “gone dark” and are no longer willing to speak out as they fear how Australian universities and the Chinese government will react. 

“I’ve had Hong Kong friends who’ve been followed and attacked. One of my friends in Brisbane was assaulted by a group of four Chinese speaking men. Knowing the way my Uyghur and Hong Kong friends are followed, it’s been happening for a long time,” he said.

Despite what he described as constant threats, Pavlo plans to create a non-profit focused on the protection and human rights of Uyghurs and Hong Kong residents.

“The death threats continue but I’m still so committed to the fight,” he said. 

“The hope is that with a proper non-profit, we’d have a proper alliance and we can build a mass movement to defend democracy.”