In 1989, Liu Xiaobo rushed to Beijing to join student protesters at Tiananmen Square. He was a devoted fighter not just for the rights of pro-democracy students, but all Chinese people. When Liu said “I have no enemies”, he meant it.
As the gunfire of the Tiananmen massacre died down, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was urged by Australian diplomats to seek refuge overseas. He chose to stay in China and was soon jailed.
An anti-government protester stands in front of artillery tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The spirit of protest has died in Chinese students. Photo: Jeff Widner
Liu became one of China‘s most devoted activists and intellectuals until his death last month after being denied adequate treatment for liver cancer.
Sadly, the spirit of protest, liberalism and human dignity that inspired Liu and the protesters of 1989 has all but vanished among Chinese students today.
Many Chinese students do not even know Liu Xiaobo’s name. Photo: Joe Armao
When asked their thoughts on any political matter, many will respond: “I don’t discuss politics.” Those who will talk often borrow the slogans and phrases of China’s propaganda machine.
Australia is home to 1 million citizens of Chinese descent – a number that includes me. What happens in China today matters more than ever, especially as China becomes more assertive around the globe, and as Chinese students flock to Australia’s universities.
I first stumbled onto this issue while reporting for the Australian National University’s student newspaper. After reading an investigation by Fairfax Media journalist John Garnaut into Chinese spies at Sydney University, I reached out to the Chinese community around ANU, convinced the same must be happening in Canberra.
What I found was a Chinese community of which the rest of the university was largely ignorant. In an economics lecture I struck up a conversation with a Chinese international student named Tom, who had studied in Beijing. To my surprise, Tom loved the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and underground music; we both listened to the same local Beijing bands.
A few minutes after meeting him, he turned to me and asked: “Don’t you think it’s a bit lonely here?” He had good English, but he didn’t have many friends and no non-Chinese ones.
Most Chinese international students I’ve met don’t have any close non-Chinese friends and move entirely in Chinese circles.
The Chinese Communist Party exploits this isolation to expand its influence beyond its borders. The news, entertainment and ideas of Chinese students are controlled and influenced by the Chinese government. Dissenting students fear speaking out because of the further isolation they may face if their fellow Chinese students rule them persona non grata. It means they hardly come into contact with the ideas on which our democratic society was built. It means that they have never heard of Liu Xiaobo.
At the forefront of the Chinese government’s grip on overseas students is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has branches at nearly every university in Australia.
CSSAs are active adherents to a mentality that exacerbates the divide between Chinese students and the university community. It encourages them to consider anyone who deviates from the party world view as the enemy.
Due to my student reporting, I have been the target of that enemy mentality and subjected to intimidation.
That same mentality has been highlighted by a recent spate of complaints against Australian lecturers who have been criticised by their Chinese students for displaying a perceived anti-China sentiment, including one lecturer who used a map showing borders between China and India not sanctioned by Beijing.
Mr Garnaut, now an independent consultant, last month told a higher education summit, that universities needed to be aware of the “red hot patriotism” that China was encouraging on Australian campusesand the potential risk to national security.
Liu Xiaobo wrote of pushing for a change in regime by focusing on gradual change in society. Yet here in Australia, the trendy bureaucratic idea of “China engagement” dominates. This means Australia’s politicians and diplomats seek to influence China through private representations and high-level meetings. Australia’s large Chinese and ethnic-Chinese population is left out in the cold to be snatched up by the Chinese government.
With more than 100,000 Chinese students studying in Australia, we have an incredible opportunity to help realise Liu’s goal of societal change.
We must end the isolation of Chinese students in Australia. Universities need to implement real plans to help them connect with the kinds of people and ideas they won’t find in China.
We are letting Chinese residents and students feel afraid of their government – and each other – when they are in Australia.
They need to be encouraged to access uncensored information. They need to feel confident the Chinese government won’t harass them and their family if they break ranks. They need our universities to demonstrate their commitment to freedom, and not just their commitment to Chinese money.
Only by doing this can we influence China and make a genuine stand for the rights and dignity of the Chinese people. To do so would be the highest form of tribute to Liu Xiaobo’s life and ideals.
Alexander Joske is a student at the Australian National University and a researcher at Charles Sturt University.