Chinese commentators labelled government warnings over foreign interference in Australian universities “a bad omen” as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop added her voice to the debate.
Last week departmental secretary Frances Adamson urged Australian universities to resist foreign interference and warned Beijing to expect greater scrutiny of its activities abroad as its influence expands.
In recent months, the Chinese government has been accused of becoming involved in cases where international students have campaigned against individual lecturers for using material seen as offensive or out of line with Beijing’s view of the world.
Further, Australian academics have reported they believe some international students fear speaking up in class, while Chinese student groups at universities are explicitly “supervised” by government diplomats.
Australian National University chancellor Gareth Evans said universities needed to give international students reassurance “that they can operate in a spy-free environment”.
Ms Bishop yesterday said students and academics at Australian universities should abide by liberal democratic values of free speech.
“We don’t want to see freedom of speech curbed in any way involving foreign students or foreign academics,” she said.
“ This country prides itself on its values of openness and upholding freedom of speech. Australia is an open liberal democracy we welcome students and visitors to our shores but people come to Australia because of our values, openness and freedom so we want to ensure everybody has the advantage of expressing their views whether they are at university or whether they are visitor.”
In an article published on Phoenix New Media on Friday, commentator Liang Haoming said recent discourse in Australia over China was “a bad omen”.
“(If) ‘China threat’ theories prevail in the governments of Australia and New Zealand and among their academics, it will eventually damage the interest of the two countries and their people,” he wrote. Mr Liang said the government’s “right wing tendencies” were harming Sino-Australia relations and Australia needed to “avoid being taken as a chess piece for US in its containment of China”.
An article by Global Times Australia correspondent Li Feng questioned the interpretation of Ms Adamson’s comments considering she did not explicitly accuse the Chinese government of interference.
The report quoted an unnamed University of Canberra professor who said the idea the Chinese government was infiltrating universities was foolish and suggested Australian media were only making an issue of the matter in order to gain attention.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong backed Ms Bishop.
“Our acceptance of China as a global power doesn’t involve us stepping away from defending our sovereignty,” Senator Wong said.
“Freedom of speech, the contest of ideas is an important democratic practice; it’s an important aspect of Australian democracy and Australian sovereignty.”
By PRIMROSE RIORDAN