Chinese Government intrusion into Western universities sparks push for collective action


The fear of Chinese Government intrusion into Western universities is sparking a push by Australia’s closest allies for a more coordinated response to Beijing’s aggressive tactics.

Key points:

  • Five Eyes partners considering collective response to threat of foreign interference
  • Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns Australian universities needed to be resilient
  • Australia is taking a leading role in the discussions

Having observed attacks on academic freedoms in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — discussions have begun in diplomatic and security circles about whether the Five Eyes intelligence partners should respond collectively to the threat, so there are no “weak links” which can be exploited.

So far nothing formal has been proposed but senior national security figures have told the ABC Australia is taking a “leading role” in publicly highlighting the situation.

The concerns over China’s activities were brought starkly into focus last week in a rare public speech by the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, who warned Australian universities needed to be resilient to foreign interference.

“The silencing of anyone in our society from students to lecturers to politicians is an affront to our values,” Ms Adamson told the Confucius Institute at Adelaide University.

International experience

United States

  • According to the New York Times over 300,000 Chinese nationals now study at US colleges, more than five times the number recorded a decade ago.
  • Chinese Students and Scholars Associations have drawn criticism for their on-campus activities in trying to silence groups whose views do not align with Beijing’s.

United Kingdom

  • In August Cambridge University Press announced it would reinstate online journal articles critical of Beijing which it had blocked in China at the request of the Communist government.
  • The incident has highlighted the pressure exerted on British academic institutions by the Chinese Government.

New Zealand

  • The smallest of the Five Eyes intelligence partners is seen by analysts as a “soft” target for Beijing’s growing “soft power” diplomacy.
  • Diplomatic figures believe China’s interference on New Zealand campuses is similar to the tactics employed in Australia.

Her contribution has been noted by senior government figures and the diplomatic community as a deliberate and important acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation.

Ms Adamson’s intervention is the latest in a series of tougher statements from Australian officials condemning Beijing’s activities, which began with the Prime Minister’s comments on the South China Sea during the Shangri-La dialogue in June.

“Australia is giving China what it wants in terms of education for its students — so it’s time for the Federal Government to insist the Chinese comply with Australia’s values and interests,” a senior foreign diplomatic figure told the ABC.

The Canberra based diplomat concedes any move by Australia to clamp down on Chinese interference would need to be matched by other Five Eyes intelligence partners who compete heavily to attract the same international students to their universities.

One of the most senior national security figures in Australia says there is now a “like mindedness and shared understanding” among Five Eyes allies of how China’s pervasive and subversive influence has penetrated into each nation.

Earlier this year a Four Corners investigation revealed the extent of influence by the Chinese Communist Party on international students studying in Australia.

Last year security concerns were raised over plans to install Chinese-owned technology on a powerful supercomputer used by government agencies and Australian universities.

By Andrew Greene
ABC News


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