Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia increasingly fear if they speak out on sensitive issues their families back home will be visited by the police and punished, a new report says.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) found such students feel spied on in Australia, leading many to self-censor in their classrooms and accommodation, says the BBC.
Professors teaching China courses in the country say they are also feeling pressure to censor themselves.
HRW said the perceived pressure was undermining the academic freedom of Australian universities.
Australia’s higher education system is heavily reliant on fee-paying Chinese students, who accounted in pre-Covid times for about 40% of all international students in the country. There are currently about 160,000 Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities.
There has been increasing concern about China’s influence on local campuses in recent years, following the deterioration in relations between the two countries.
The rights group said it interviewed nearly 50 students and academics in Australia and found an “atmosphere of fear” that has worsened in recent years.
Researchers said they had confirmed three cases where a student’s activities in Australia had prompted police in China to visit their families.
In one case, Chinese authorities also threatened a student with jail after they opened a Twitter account in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages.
“Fear that what they do in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing their parents back home weighed heavily on the minds of every pro-democracy student interviewed,” said the report.
Its author, Sophie McNeill, said university administrators were “failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China”.
HRW also interviewed 22 academics at Australian universities who teach China studies or Chinese students. More than half of those interviewed practised regular self-censorship when talking about China, McNeill found.
Some reported that they have also experienced pressure and censorship from university authorities who asked them not to discuss China publicly or hold China-related events.
The report quotes one unidentified academic who refused university officials’ request for a “sanitised” version of his Chinese Studies unit when teaching students based in China online during the pandemic.
For a number of years now, Australia has been debating the reach of Beijing’s interference on campuses.
In the past Chinese authorities and media outlets have dismissed such concerns as smears, and the country’s ambassador has described as “groundless” allegations that Chinese students in Australia were being monitored for dissident behaviour.
However, in 2019, the Australian government set up a task force and new guidelines for universities to combat what it described as “unprecedented levels” of foreign interference.
Scrutiny has focused on research collaborations between Australian and Chinese universities on Australian campuses.
The activities of on-campus Confucius Institutes – Chinese language and cultural centres funded by the Chinese government – have also raised questions.
A recent parliamentary inquiry has examined foreign interference in the university sector. It is due to report in July.
Universities Australia, a representative group of the nation’s top institutions, told the inquiry in March that universities were aware of “reports of intimidation and coercion of students”.
Chief executive Catriona Jackson said, “This is unacceptable conduct. The safety and security of students and their right to free expression and debate is fundamental to every university.”