The Australian National University (ANU) was one of only two universities that did not provide a submission to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) inquiry into Chinese influence over academic freedoms in Australia.
The report, titled They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have, detailed incidents of self-censorship and harassment of Chinese students at universities across Australia.
HRW confirmed three incidents where a student’s family in China was visited or requested to meet with police regarding their activities in Australia.
While the number is likely underreported, the fact this occurred at all was a cause for concern and enough to keep thousands of other students “on edge and fearful”, the report said.
“The Chinese Government maintains surveillance of Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students in Australian universities,” it said.
“Students said the fear of fellow students reporting on them to the Chinese consulate or embassy and the potential impact on loved ones in China led to stress, anxiety, and affected their daily activities.
“Fear that what they did in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their parents back home weighed heavily on the minds of every pro-democracy student interviewed.”
Both teachers and students told HRW they engaged in self-censorship because they did not feel the university would “have their back” when covering sensitive topics around China.
Students who had been subjected to harassment, coercion or threats did not report it due to the belief that their university would not take the threat seriously, would be sympathetic to nationalistic Chinese students or would prioritise maintaining their relationship with the Chinese Government.
An ANU spokesperson told Region Media that the university did not respond to the HRW due to time constraints but that it was “very happy to engage with HRW on this issue and will continue to do so as we have already done”.
It is understood that ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt met with HRW earlier this year to discuss the findings of their report and how the lessons could be applied at the university.
The spokesperson said the security and wellbeing of the ANU community, especially students, is the highest priority.
“We condemn any acts of coercion or other behaviour that makes our students or any other member of our community feel unsafe,” they said.
“At ANU we are committed to academic freedom. Academic freedom is a founding principle of our university and fundamental to all our work. We are a community that fosters respectful debate and robust scholarship and the free exchange of diverse ideas.
“Members of our community are entitled and encouraged to share their views, and to disagree with the views of others in a respectful way.”
ANU said it has not received any formal complaints from students.
But students and people critical of the Chinese Communist Party or who expressed support for democracy in China or Hong Kong have been targeted for harassment and intimidation by their classmates, HRW found.
“It is carried out by a small but highly motivated and vocal minority who have the potential to influence many others,” the report said.
“Students and social media users supportive of the Chinese Government have subjected academics to harassment, intimidation, and doxing if the academics are perceived to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party or discuss ‘sensitive’ issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, or Xinjiang.
“Such incidents have taken place numerous times over the last few years on Australian campuses, and they continue to occur.”
This includes an incident at the aMBUSH Gallery on ANU’s campus in March when an exhibition of works by artist Luke Cornish, criticising global human rights issues, incurred severe backlash online from Chinese students.
At the time, ANU said the gallery was a commercial tenant of the campus’ Kambri Precinct and was not affiliated with the university.
When asked what the university was doing in light of the HRW report, the spokesperson said it was in the midst of developing “a major program of social inclusion“ that is expected to be rolled out across the campus this year.
“Over 2021 we will be taking stock to strengthen our approach across a number of settings across the campus, including in the classroom, all aspects of campus life and in our residential halls,” the spokesperson said.
“In this specific context, social cohesion refers to the university’s intention to increase and build on existing awareness of freedom of speech, foreign interference and cybersecurity; equip our people with the skills, knowledge and resilience needed to successfully navigate these complex areas; and to build a common culture and understanding across our campus to ensure we are all working collectively and effectively on these important issues.”
Students and academics at 16 Australian universities were interviewed for the They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have report, which can be downloaded from Human Rights Watch.
HRW wrote to each university with a set of questions. Only ANU and the University of Adelaide did not reply.