Don’t be silenced, top diplomat tells Australian unis amid China concerns

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DFAT secretary Frances Adamson speaks at the University of Adelaide's Confucius Institute. (ABC News)

Australia’s Foreign Affairs boss has urged universities to better protect themselves from the rising influence of the Chinese Communist Party, asking students to engage in respectful debate rather than spread propaganda or attempt to gag views they disagree with.

Key points:

  • A speech to international students warned of China‘s “untoward” influence
  • Students were asked to speak up rather than silently withdraw or blindly condemn propaganda and alternative views
  • The intervention will be noted in both Canberra and Beijing, given the DFAT secretary’s rank in diplomacy circles

The message came during a pointed speech to a Chinese Government-funded academic institute in Adelaide over the weekend.

DFAT secretary Frances Adamson told “international students” at the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute that “silencing of anyone in our society — from students to lecturers to politicians — is an affront to our values”.

“No doubt there will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling, or perhaps seem plain wrong … so when you do, let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage,” she said.

Ms Adamson also said universities should be prepared to “remain true” to their values and to “remain secure and resilient”.

“We have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference,” she said.

“When confronted with awkward choices, it is up to us to choose our response, whether to make an uncomfortable compromise or decide instead to remain true to our values, ‘immune from intolerance or external influence’ as Adelaide University’s founders envisaged.”

As Australia’s most senior diplomat, Ms Adamson is extremely cautious in her public comments, so her intervention in the contentious debate around growing Chinese influence will be noted both in Canberra and Beijing.

Earlier this year a Four Corners investigation revealed the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on international students studying in Australia.

That investigation revealed that Beijing is active across a vast array of fronts — from directing Chinese student associations, threatening Australian-based Chinese dissidents and seeking to influence academic inquiry, to co-opting community groups and controlling most Chinese-language media.

Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned Parliament at the time that espionage and foreign interference in Australia were occurring on “an unprecedented scale”.

The DFAT secretary’s comments follow Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s blunt warning in June to Asian leaders of Chinese aggression in the region.

Mr Turnbull gave a blunt keynote address to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore implying that China was not playing by the rules in the South China Sea.

The Turnbull Government is this year preparing to introduce new laws to counter foreign interference and espionage.

DFAT also sounds warning on One Belt One Road

In a question and answer session after her speech Ms Adamson was asked why Australia was “dragging its feet” on the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative.

The One Belt One Road initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign and economic policyespousing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment linking Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond.

The ambitious plan is to build a vast network of new trade routes across the globe, multiple high-speed rail networks to penetrate Europe, massive ports across Asia and Africa and a series of free-trade zones.

Just last week shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said Labor would have an “open mind” on collaborating on infrastructure projects with China on a “case by case basis”.

Ms Adamson, though, sounded caution.

“Because we know from our neighbours in the South Pacific in particular that infrastructure projects can come with very heavy price tags and the repayment of those loans can be absolutely crippling and that’s why you’d expect Australia has an interest in governance arrangements,” she said.

By Andrew Greene
ABC News

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