Human Rights Watch has accused Australian universities of failing to protect the academic freedom of Chinese students who support democracy, saying many of them have altered their behaviour and practised self-censorship in order to avoid harassment and being “reported on” to authorities back home.
In a new report released on Wednesday, HRW said Australian universities – which depend on the fees that international students bring – were “turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies”.
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The group said it interviewed 24 pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and verified three cases in which police in China visited or asked to meet their families regarding the students’ activities in Australia.
In one case, Chinese authorities threatened a student with jail after they opened a Twitter account while studying in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages.
The student told HRW that the police in mainland China “contacted my parents … and issued an official warning and they told me to ‘shut the f**k up’.”
“They said I must shut down my Twitter, stop spreading anti-government messages and if I don’t cooperate, they may charge me with a crime,” the student said. “I deleted the Twitter account. Because I’m worried for my parents.”
HRW also said pro-Beijing students in Australia harass and intimidate those who express support for democracy movements. One female student reported receiving a threatening message from a fellow classmate after she attended a Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstration in Australia.
“He was like, ‘I’m watching you.’ Personally, I felt really scared,” she said. “I was in a course with 98 percent mainland students. Students were bad-mouthing me. That I was not loyal to the country.”
HRW said every pro-democracy student interviewed expressed fears that their activities in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their family back home, and said these worries affected what they said in class, their choice of friends and even their decisions about what classes or events to attend.
“I have to censor myself,” one mainland student said. “This is the reality, I came to Australia and still I’m not free. I never talk about politics here.”
But the majority of these students did not report the harassment to their university, HRW said, citing a belief that their university would not take the threat seriously or that they feared their university was sympathetic to pro-Beijing Chinese students only.
The harassment was not only limited to students, according to HRW.
The group said pro-Beijing students and social media users have also subjected some academics at Australian universities to harassment, intimidation, and doxxing – posting their personal information – 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.
In one case last year, pro-Beijing supporters bullied, harassed and doxxed an academic who described Taiwan as a country and spoke out in defence of a Taiwanese student. As a result, HRW said, the Australian university had to temporarily remove the academic’s teaching profile from the university website.
HRW said academics who are from or specialise in China Studies also reported practising self-censorship regularly while talking about China. One academic even reported being told by a university official to offer a “sanitised” version of his Chinese Studies unit.
“When all our teaching went online, I got an email from IT leadership, saying they had set up a VPN [virtual private network] into China, there was some concern re the content of teaching,” he told HRW. “Another academic, who was also teaching another Chinese Studies unit, had offered a ‘sanitised’ version of that course for PRC students. Is that something I would be willing to consider for my course? I said, ‘No I’m not willing to do that’.”
All of this, the HRW said, was taking place against the backdrop of a Chinese government effort to undermine academic freedom globally. It said the Chinese government has grown bolder in recent years in trying to monitor Chinese students abroad and in censoring academic discussions and scholarly inquiry.
Universities in Australia – where approximately 40 percent of all international students come from China – must do more to tackle the Chinese government’s actions, said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at HRW.
“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” she said. “Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies. The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”