Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A study in controversy: Chinese students in Australia

A love of country is not always synonymous with an endorsement of the government when speaking with Chinese students in Australia.

Chinese students graduate from the Australian National University in Canberra (Photo: Getty Images)
Chinese students graduate from the Australian National University in Canberra (Photo: Getty Images)
Published 4 Jun 2018 

According to the caricature in the popular media, Chinese international students in Australia are devoted agents of the Chinese Government. They are “brainwashed from birth” and, in this compromised state, pose a threat to Australian universities and the values they espouse.

In this context, speaking with Chinese international students is a disillusioning experience. These students assert their own opinions and motivations as they reckon with the complex set of pressures and expectations they must navigate.

What emerges is a profile of young people that is internally conflicted and difficult to comprehend, but one that in almost every instance dispels the notion of “brainwashed” agents carrying out the will of the Chinese Communist Party.

Culture shock

Yifan Wang arrived in Australia in 2015 to complete a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Newcastle. She says that in a country so “well-known for its diversity and multiculturalism”, the recent controversy surrounding Chinese students initially came as a “culture shock”.

But speaking over the phone, she is neither confused about the situation nor uncomprehending in her disappointment. She attributes the controversy to a range of factors, from a backlash regarding increasing numbers of Chinese enrolments to the inherent difficulties of integrating as an international student.

Rei Wong, a final-year Law/Sociology student at the University of Sydney, is similarly concerned, but unflustered, by the recent debate. Unlike some other members of his student organisation, USyd China Development, he opposes more actively responding to accusations levelled against Chinese students.

Instead of creating an “endless cycle of debate”, he suggests that student organisations should “focus on what we do, be the best, and aim to accomplish our goals”.

Show people we are not doing what they claim.

Yifan and Rei, like all of the students interviewed for this article, say they are proud to be Chinese. Here, the most vocal opponents of Chinese influence in Australia have a point: patriotism is on the rise among China’s youth.

Government and country

Susan Shirk, Chair of the 21st Century China Center at University of California, San Diego, sees the growth of nationalism among Chinese youth as both a spontaneous and constructed phenomenon.

Under Jiang Zemin, the Chinese Communist Party launched a “patriotic education campaign”, a pervasive propaganda and school socialisation exercise designed to foster popular nationalism. Its success has been amplified by China’s growing prosperity and prominence on the world stage. In the minds of Chinese international students, these nationalistic impulses are sharpened by the day-to-day experiences of living abroad: homesickness, marginalisation, and group solidarity.

Despite this, Chinese students insist that love of the nation is not always synonymous with endorsement of the government. As Rei said:

to be proud of a country means more than supporting the government. Government is a temporary thing. Love of country extends to the people within it, the cultural environment, your friends, and the culture itself.

But in a country such as China, where the boundaries separating nation, state, and party are so often blurred, it is hard to determine where individual loyalties lie. Herein lies the primary difficulty of connecting broader arguments about Chinese influence to the individual motivations of its supposed agents.

In some cases, support for the country and for the government neatly aligns. When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Canberra in March 2017, the Chinese Embassy and the Chinese Student and Scholars Association organised “welcome rallies” to receive him. Yifan said that she understood why Chinese students joined in: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet our country leader who brought our country forward.”

At other times, individual attitudes towards country and party diverge. Greg McCarthy, who has taught as a professor at the University of Western Australia and Peking University, says Chinese students are “very sophisticated” in these instances.

While adopting a formal position “akin to supporting China and not criticising the CCP,” McCarthy explained, “they have different views of the CCP. Some are in it, most are not. Most do not care about politics.”

Web of pressure

Chinese international students describe the web of pressure and scrutiny facing them, including concerned parents, potential employers, and social media platforms on which their actions could easily and quickly become public knowledge.

Yifan surmised of her fellow students, “They want a joyful overseas education experience, but they also want to get a job when they go back to their home country.” Chinese international students in Australia are a group of young people who have their sights fixed in two directions: one here in Australia, and the other in China.

This dual stance offers opportunities as well as dangers. And some international students seem to understand that patriotic displays and cooperation with the government may enhance their future prospects in China.

These local instances of opportunism mirror a broader feature of the Chinese Communist Party: the coexistence of individualism and, or within, a solidaristic collective.

In a 2013 paper, Bruce Dickson, a professor at George Washington University, found that the youngest party members were much more likely than older cohorts to report “self-interest (such as helping their careers, advancing politically, and raising social status)” as a motive for joining the party.

Finding a way abroad

Universities in Australia seek to highlight the importance of educational partnerships with China and emphasise the resources invested to settle international students into Australia.

In a statement provided for this article, Catriona Jackson, Acting Chief Executive of Universities Australia, emphasised:

All of our universities invest significant time, care, and resources to welcome international students and to help them settle into Australia.

Yet despite this, some Chinese students reported that they lack the resources to respond when faculty or fellow students act in a way they find objectionable.

In August 2017, Chinese students at the University of Newcastle confronted a lecturer for referring to Taiwan and Hong Kong as “countries”. A video of the dispute went viral on Chinese social media. 

Ludwig Wang, a final-year PhD student in Mathematics and Computer Science at the university, said that it was wrong for his fellow students to record and upload the video without the lecturer’s permission. But he said he understood his classmates’ motivation. It is “Chinese people’s thinking pattern,” he explained, that “[if] we can get a lot of people attracted to our news, the problem can be solved.”

Other students felt they had few alternatives to directly voicing their objections and sharing them online. They claimed that Australian media and university bureaucracy would be unsympathetic.

In this context, the controversial Chinese Student and Scholars Associations, and other Chinese student groups, seem to have emerged to provide international students the resources that they may otherwise lack. The associations have become a first point of contact for many Chinese students who encounter difficulties in university.

Students report that CSSAs, for the most part, play a social and pastoral role in their lives. They host not only parties and entertainment, but also pre-professional programs that prepare students for life and work in a new country. They are Mandarin-speaking spaces on English-speaking campuses. 

Rei explained of his fellow students:

Most people join the Chinese Student Association because that’s the official organisation. They think, ‘I found a home, this is where I belong.’

A stressful controversy

Meanwhile, concern about Chinese influence on university campuses continues to spread throughout the world. University administrations in the US and across Europe have had to take a stance on Chinese Student Associations, Confucius Institutes, and Chinese Government organisations that work with their students.

Back in Australia, Chinese international students are supporting each other through the frustrating and stressful controversy that has enveloped them. Towards the end of our interview, Yifan Wang asked to directly address fellow Chinese students in Australia:

Let your voice be heard because if you don’t speak up then others will misunderstand you and keep that misunderstanding forever. If you speak up with enthusiasm, things might get better.

You may also be interested in