Universities should be aware of the “red hot patriotism” Beijing is stirring up on Australian campuses and the national security risks posed by such fervour, a former adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says.
John Garnaut, now an independent consultant, told The Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit that the Communist Party wanted Chinese nationals to remain highly loyal even while studying overseas.
That meant following them wherever they go in the world, including to Australia, where 30 per cent of foreign students are Chinese.
Mr Garnaut said there had been several instances in recent months where Chinese students had mobilised against teachers who displayed what they perceived to be anti-China sentiment.
One example occurred at the Australian National University, where a lecturer translated an anti-plagiarism message into Chinese. Some students viewed this as an attack and they mobilised to force a long apology by the teacher.
In another example, a lecturer got into trouble because he used a map of the world pulled from the internet that did not draw China’s boundary with India as Beijing would like.
“The challenge for [Australia] is, how do we cope with the fact that our single biggest customer is instructing students and teachers to have red hot patriotic sentiment when they are in Australia,” Mr Garnaut said.
“One of [Chinese president] Xi Jinping’s objectives has been to ensure that the party can project its interests into the world, including following Chinese people wherever they go.”
Clean air an attraction
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said so long as Australia offered clean air, an inclusive society and world-class institutions, Chinese students would want to come here.
“The extent to which we as a nation are going to compromise our values as a result of influence is going to the big issue,” he said.
University of Canberra deputy vice-chancellor (students and partnerships) Rongyu Li, who was born in China, said whatever the Chinese government did was to stay in power.
He said travel and technology meant the “brainwashing” of the past was no longer possible.
“I think the political agenda (of President Xi) is very different to the agenda of the students and their parents,” he said.
Aspirations were driven by Confucian philosophy, which was that “education is the way out”.
“They just want to do well for themselves,” Professor Li said.
“The general public understands the government has its own agenda and similar to our major political parties does not want to lose support at the grass roots level.”
University of NSW pro vice-chancellor (international) Laurie Pearcey told the summit any slip in Australia’s stringent academic standards or freedoms would put a dent in demand from foreign students.
He also warned the “rivers of gold” that Chinese students had represented for Australia could dry up as China developed its own world-class institutions.
With China now the world’s biggest investor in research and development, students might find it more attractive to stay home, he said.
Mr Garnaut, a former Fairfax China correspondent who later became an adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, said President Xi relied on something called the United Front Work Department to exert influence abroad.
“It’s got a large presence in Australia which is not sufficiently understood,” he said.
“One of its objectives is to cultivate, to work the interests of Chinese scholars and students so that they can feel like they are free to come and go under the party’s terms in China – develop your knowledge base, bring it back to China and you will be treated well.”
“You really should make this a priority if you are going to protect the interests of your lecturers and provide a safe workplace for them you need to know what’s going on, what’s being said about them on the Chinese language internet.”
The Turnbull government has said it will tighten espionage and foreign interference laws by the end of the year.
“These will introduce criminal provisions which are not there at the moment,” Mr Garnaut said.
“This is a signal of national security objectives and intentions and I think we all need to be looking at these risks, not as reputational or business risks but as legal risks for our administration.”
by Joanna Mather