Federal MPs have condemned the University of NSW for deleting social media posts about human rights in Hong Kong following an online backlash from Chinese nationalists.
The university faced a barrage of pro-China criticism over the weekend after publishing an article that expressed concern about Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. A post on Twitter sharing the link was subsequently removed by the university.
Liberal senator James Paterson criticised the university’s actions, accusing the institution of valuing its revenue from Chinese students over academic freedom.
“This craven behaviour by UNSW is yet more evidence of the compromised relationship many of our universities have with communist China,” he said.
“Academic freedom and free speech on campus are core values of any self-respecting higher education institution and they should never be sacrificed for lucrative international student income.”
The article, based on comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson, was also temporarily unavailable on Saturday morning at its original location on the university website’s general news section. It then became accessible in the business and law section and was labelled as opinion.
The original tweet posting the article had quoted Ms Pearson saying “now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong”.
The university was then hit with critical social media posts and emails from Chinese nationals that said Ms Pearson’s article was ignorant, biased, discriminatory, had “severely offended” Chinese students, and amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.
Responding to the initial blowback, the university added a second tweet saying the “opinions expressed by our academics do not always represent the views of UNSW”. The tweet said the university had a “long and valued relationship with Greater China” and provided a welcome and inclusive environment.
Both the university’s posts were deleted by Saturday.
A university spokeswoman said the posts were “not in line with our policies – and the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university”.
Liberal MP Tim Wilson accused UNSW of cowardice and said universities needed to build a sense of resilience against foreign interference.
“If the university isn’t prepared to stand up on such basic tests of intellectual diversity against something as straightforward as human rights violations abroad then it paints a very worrying picture to me,” the former Human Rights Commissioner said.
“It just seems to me to be a form of cowardice to have pulled down the article.”
Labor senator Tony Sheldon said when respected voices such as Ms Pearson and Human Rights Watch were being censored “we have a big problem”.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador, accused the university of self-censorship. “UNSW seems to have acted in response to an orchestrated campaign of online intimidation, when such freedoms should be non-negotiable,” he said.
It is the second time in a week that UNSW has distanced itself from the views of its academics after economist Gigi Foster was criticised for advocating for relaxed coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Australia.
On Saturday evening, state-run nationalist newspaper The Global Times posted an article saying the University of NSW had “outraged” and shamed Chinese students, who were demanding an apology and removal of the article.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Fergus Ryan said once an issue was picked up by Chinese state media it invited a much bigger cohort to jump on the bandwagon beyond the student community.
“In many of those messages the people who are complaining are saying point blank UNSW have done the wrong thing and we are going to push for Chinese students to pull out of your uni,” he said. “It is that economic threat that the university is afraid of.”
More than 16,000 Chinese students make up a quarter of UNSW’s student body.
Mr Ryan said, while students should be able to campaign on a range of issues they believe in, the university should not so easily accede to the demands of the campaign.
“They claim to stand up for freedom of speech but by doing this they are completely trashing that reputation,” he said.
Ms Pearson said she was seeking clarification from UNSW on what had happened and that advocating for the human rights of Hongkongers should not be controversial.
“I hope UNSW will reaffirm its protection of academic freedom and make it clear that academic freedom does not mean caving to censorship demands by some people over views they disagree with,” she said on Monday.
In the article, Ms Pearson had called for the United Nations to establish a special envoy to monitor the human rights situation in Hong Kong as the Chinese government cracks down on dissent and winds back the city’s legal autonomy.
Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party, called the episode an “unacceptable disgrace”.
By Fergus Hunter and Eryk Bagshaw