Commentary | 31 July 2017

A Chinese threat to Australian openness

Originally published in the New York Times (Photo: Flickr/Mark爱生活)

  • Merriden Varrall

Originally published in the New York Times (Photo: Flickr/Mark爱生活)

  • Merriden Varrall

Australians are increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence in the country. Chinese money is being funneled to politicians. Beijing-run media outlets buy ads in Australian newspapers to promote the Communist Party view on local and regional issues. Chinese companies are buying Australian farms and natural resources.

The push extends to Australia’s universities. Chinese agents are said to monitor Chinese students and report on those who fail to toe the Communist Party line. And in another troubling trend, many of the 150,000 visiting Chinese students are importing a pro-Beijing approach to the classroom that is stifling debate and openness.

In 2008-9 I taught international relations to undergraduates at a Chinese university in Beijing, giving me a window into Chinese students’ attitudes and behavior. I was struck by the tendency for students to align themselves with the government view.

I was not given any guidance or warnings about the topics I could cover in the classroom. But throughout the year, I was offered hints that my approach to teaching was inappropriate. Those warnings came not only from the administration but from the students themselves.

On several occasions, students suggested I use a different style of teaching. They found critical analysis and picking apart expert opinion uncomfortable. This was particularly true for readings and class discussions that could be construed as critical of China.

Most students, for example, would reject anything that suggested China had not always been peaceful. The majority of students would react angrily to any reading material implying that Japan was not an inherently aggressive and expansionist country.

Some students told me in private that they were afraid to express their views in class. They feared that their peers would report on them and that they would receive a black mark on their record. The minority of students who showed interest in open discussion were shut down by classmates who parroted Beijing’s talking points.

In one session, students gave a presentation that, unsurprisingly, painted the Japanese in a negative light. One of their classmates wondered aloud whether Chinese people still needed to hate Japan. Another suggested that China also publishes textbooks with self-serving interpretations of history, as Japan does. Outrage erupted. One student furiously accused the two of “not loving China enough.”

At my midyear review, I was told firmly by my department leadership that my approach of “trying to teach through rumor and hearsay” was unsuitable. When I refused to change my methods, I was told that I would not receive my bonus and that my contract would not be renewed.

Chinese students are taking this approach into the Australian classroom.

A recent ABC-Fairfax report gave the example of Lupin Lu, head of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association chapter at the University of Canberra. Ms. Lu said she would not hesitate to inform officials at the Chinese Embassy if she heard of Chinese students organizing, for example, protests against Beijing.

Even here in Australia, Chinese students have said they fear speaking up in class because they worry their compatriots will report them to embassy authorities. Some students ask to be placed in tutorial groups without other Chinese citizens so they can speak openly.

Sally Sargeson, an associate professor at the Australian National University, said to Forbes magazine that every Chinese student she asked about this problem “said they know they are being monitored and adjust their speech so they will not get into trouble.”

When Chinese students self-censor or monitor and report on their peers, it is not necessarily because the Chinese state is bearing down on them. Rather, many Chinese students believe that speaking out against the officially approved view, on any topic, is inappropriate. The anthropologist Erika Evasdottir describes this as “self-directed control.” Monitoring and reporting on peers who diverge from the party line is seen as the right thing to do.

Universities have not adequately addressed this threat to debate and openness. Officials may be reluctant to take action because overseas students bring a lot of money to underfunded Australian universities.

Because many Chinese students have internalized the need to align with official views, maintaining Australia’s standards for free and open debate will remain a daunting challenge. Australian universities could start by facing up to the problem.