SYDNEY: A large number of Chinese students at Australian universities have created an environment of self-censorship where professors avoid criticism of Beijing and Chinese students remain silent for fear of harassment, Human Rights Watch said. Some parents in mainland China were questioned by Chinese police about student activities in Australia, and Hong Kong police questioned returning students about pro-democracy activities, the group said in a report released today.
Self-censorship has worsened since universities took online courses in the Kovid-1p epidemic, with Chinese students joining classes behind China’s “Great Firewall” Internet censorship system, the group said. This trend has compromised academic independence for all students in the class, report author Sophie McNeil told Reuters. “It undermines Australia’s academic independence,” he said.
In one instance, an online course removed references to a bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989, he said. In response to the report, Universities Australia, a leading industry body, said that universities are committed to academic freedom and “if any student or staff member is forced or intimidated, they request to go directly to their university.” Australian Education Minister Alan Tudge said the report raised “deeply troubled issues” and that the government would consult a parliamentary intelligence and security committee. “No interference on our campuses by foreign agencies can be tolerated,” the statement said.
In response to the report, the Chinese embassy in Canberra said, “Human Rights Watch has become a political tool to attack and make sense of developing countries in the West. It has always been biased towards China.” Prior to the Covid-19 epidemic, 40% of all international students in Australia were from China or 10% of all university students. About one-third of the university sector’s income came from international student fees.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 students with “pro-democracy” views at Australian universities, including 11 from mainland China and 13 from Hong Kong. He also interviewed 22 academics. The human rights group has investigated three cases in which police warned relatives in China about the activities of a student in Australia. “If you protest against CCP abroad, they will find people who like to pay you. Even if you are in Australia,” an anonymous student told Human Rights Watch, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.