Foreign interference is a threat to the Australian way of life. The Chinese Communist Party has exerted influence so adroitly that university leaders either believe they are capable of taming the dragon or care more for foreign funds than the national interest.
Top Australia universities are denying the need for new legislation to curb foreign influence, despite recent investigations that exposed the breadth and depth of CCP activity on campus. Instead, they are citing institutional autonomy to defend the status quo while raking in billions from foreign student fees and international partnerships that experts believe pose a security threat and undermine Australia’s economic sovereignty.
If you want to know why universities need government oversight, consider submissions to the Senate Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Inquiry into the Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020. The bill is designed to ensure the federal government maintains control of national security.
To improve transparency in their dealings with foreign entities, the bill would require universities to notify the commonwealth and seek advice about the impact of international agreements. As it stands, there is no legal mechanism to ensure that university management exercises the kind of transparency and accountability for national security one might expect from institutions that receive billions in taxpayers’ money.
An investigation by The Australian revealed universities employed dozens of researchers who were part of the Thousand Talents Plan, a CCP program that US officials have listed as a military, economic and security threat.
Following an eight-month investigation, a US Senate subcommittee released a report detailing the aims, methods and impact of the Thousand Talents Plan. Senators observed that the open and collaborative nature of US research was a general good, but left universities vulnerable to countries that exploit open societies to advance their own national interests. The report notes that for the Chinese government, the aim of research collaboration is not solely “advancing science for the global good, it is, by their own admission, about advancing China’s national security and economic interests”.
CCP self-interest is evident in the use of Thousand Talents Plan researchers to exploit publicly funded universities in Australia and the US to advance China’s national interest. In effect, Western taxpayers are funding research that benefits the totalitarian Chinese government. And, as the US Senate subcommittee noted, the Chinese government then uses the research to advance an aggressively self-interested military and economic agenda. None of it could be achieved without American brainpower, but the self-evident failure of China to advance science without stealing from the West has not resulted in a humbler approach to international affairs on the part of the CCP.
Like their American counterparts, Australian politicians are asking universities to take their share of responsibility for addressing the threat of aggressive foreign entities on campus. At the very least, university leaders should show maturity in their response to the proposed bill and acknowledge that their failure to act with due diligence has resulted in unacceptable risks to Australia.
The Australian’s investigation showed Thousand Talent Plan researchers were employed by a range of universities across the country. Yet, many universities claimed not to know about their academics’ connections to the CCP. Some denied staff were involved. The University of NSW denied one of its academics, Joe Dong, had “sold or relinquished patents to any Chinese power companies”. When presented with evidence to the contrary, a university spokeswoman said Dong did not know he was named in the patents, but it was – wait for it – “in line with the academic culture in China at the time”.
If Australian universities want to be in line with the academic culture in China, they should set up shop in Xinjiang where the CCP showcases its intellectual curiosity across a system of 380 re-education camps. But, while they are receiving taxpayers’ money, universities can support our way of life and that includes defending the national interest against totalitarian regimes.
In his submission on the foreign relations bill, China analyst and professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton observes that university leaders are mounting a co-ordinated attack against the proposed measures. And it is not the first time they have resisted commonwealth efforts to curb foreign interference or intellectual property theft. Australian universities have had ample opportunity to exercise due diligence but hide behind the shield of academic freedom or autonomy rather than acknowledging the problem and taking the responsible path of risk mitigation.
Hamilton is right to point out the desperate attempt of universities to protect their interests by suggesting agreements with the Russell Group (Britain’s leading research universities) would be put at risk by the new bill. The only instance where that might be plausible is if a potential Russell Group partner was in league with hostile foreign power. In that case, the Australian government would be well advised to reject public funding for the partnership.
There are plenty of alternatives to research that benefits the CCP at the expense of the free world. No liberal democratic government should pump money into institutions that provide our illiberal enemies with scientific innovation, the basis of modern military power. Public funding should be withheld from institutions that refuse to make their self-interest subordinate to the greater good of the Australian people, our security and fundamental democratic values. It is not in our interest to furnish China’s military and economic aggression with Australian workers’ money.
By Jennifer Oriel