Chinese students in Australia are scared of speaking out about Hong Kong as the Chinese Communist Party ramps up new online portals for reporting dissent and UNSW is engulfed in controversy over academic freedom.
UNSW deleted social media posts over the weekend that raised concerns about the erosion of human rights in the Chinese territory after a campaign was launched by Huang Yuwen, a Sydney-based lawyer with links to the Chinese consulate. The university was subsequently inundated with social media posts and emails from Chinese nationals that said the posts severely offended students, and amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.
The social media posts quoted Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, who warned it was time to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, where new national security laws punish dissent with sentences of up to life in prison.
Ms Pearson on Tuesday accused the university of baulking under pressure.
“My recent experience suggests that the university might be more interested in damage control than an open marketplace of ideas,” she said.
She said she was shocked at the ferocity of the response from pro-Chinese Communist Party students and disappointed at the university’s feeble response.
Ms Pearson, who is also an adjunct professor at UNSW, said a 23-year-old UNSW law student from China recently told Human Rights Watch that students in their law classes were afraid to express any pro-democracy sentiment in Australia.
“If you protest against the CCP abroad, they will find people you love and hurt you to make you pay,” the student said.
“This fear is real,” said Ms Pearson.
The CCP has also established a new online portal that allows people to refer their compatriots to police for political crimes.
The portal, which is accessible in Australia, allows allegations to be made against dissidents for “attacking the party, the state system and major policies,” endangering national security, harming the national image and slandering heroes.
Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer at Monash University, said people of Chinese ethnicity at Australian universities deal with a “type of pressure that is just considerably more intimidating than anything your average student faces”.
“I have had students who have had their families pressured simply because they did a presentation on the situation in Tibet or they discussed the historical events of 1989,” he said.
Dr Carrico said there were diverse opinions amongst Chinese nationals but many were unwilling to talk openly because of the monitoring and threats from nationalist students who seek to enforce Chinese Communist Party ideology.
“So you have this troubling interface of peer pressure, political orthodoxy and top-down manipulation by consulates who really want to control how China is talked about on a global scale and that’s a pretty dangerous combination,” he said.
Wuyuan Dong Zoo, an LGBTI activist from eastern China, said in June that Chinese police had paid her parents a visit in China on April 23 after she participated in Hong Kong demonstrations in Melbourne. Multiple other students, who declined to be identified, said their families had faced harassment in China after participating in pro-democracy events amid warnings on WeChat their activities could be reported to the Chinese embassy in Australia.
Internal UNSW emails show Andrew Lynch, the acting dean of UNSW law, was forced to intervene after nationalist students broadcast their concerns about the UNSW post to the entire international student database of the faculty, accusing the university of severely offending its Chinese cohort through “ignorance and bias”.
In a series of escalating disputes between students, nationalist students were accused of ignoring China’s record on human rights and told to go back to China.
The law faculty had set up an email distribution account to communicate with its 400-plus international students, but had not restricted the settings to allow only official communications from the university.
“It was not the purpose when creating this account that it would provide a platform for the exchange of such views,” Professor Lynch said.
“I particularly regret the posting of emails that are clearly inconsistent with the responsibility of all students under the University’s Student Code of Conduct to treat all members of the UNSW community with courtesy and respect.”
By Eryk Bagshaw & Fergus Hunter