WORLD

How Aus unis have ‘failed’ Chinese students

Australian universities must step up and protect the academic freedom of Chinese students and academics, a parliamentary inquiry has heard. Picture: Dale de la Rey / AFP

Australian universities have “failed to protect the academic freedom” of Chinese students and academics, and the sector must step up its protective efforts, a joint parliamentary committee has heard.

Researcher Sophie McNeil from Human Rights Watch Australia (HRWA), a member of the team behind the “They Don’t Understand the Fear we have” report, has recommended to the Australian Government that it publish an annual report documenting incidents of harassment, intimidation and censorship affecting international students at Australian universities, and steps taken by those institutions to counter threats.

Human Rights Watch Australia has also recommended the Commonwealth establish a mechanism so students can report harassment, intimidation, pressures of censorship or self-censorship and acts of retaliation involving any foreign government.

The government has been urged to produce an annual report documenting incidents of harassment and intimidation.
The government has been urged to produce an annual report documenting incidents of harassment and intimidation.

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The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has “conveyed concerns” of intimidating and monitoring of individuals directly to Chinese officials.

“The government speaks strongly and consistently about the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, both directly with Chinese counterparts and in a range of multilateral settings, including at the UN Human Rights Council,” assistant secretary Neil Hawkins said.

Australian Universities, represented by the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, should examine “as a priority” the harassment, intimidation and self-censorship of students and academics from China and working on China.

Speaking at the parliamentary inquiry on Monday into foreign interference threats into Australian diaspora communities, Ms McNeil said Chinese students and academics were being left vulnerable to harassment and intimidation, and were “disappointed” that Australian universities weren’t doing more to protect them.

“Both students from China and academics who work on China have adopted self-censorship as the most common strategy to avoid threats, harassment and surveillance,” Ms McNeil said.

“Further, what they did in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing their parents back home … weighed heavily on the minds of every pro-democracy student (we interviewed).

“ … We would very much like this committee to endorse our recommendations.”

Students in Australia have faced threats from China.
Students in Australia have faced threats from China.

Elaine Pearson from HRWA also noted students and academics from countries other than China have also faced threats from foreign governments.

“In recent years, Human Rights Watch has become aware of examples of surveillance, harassment and intimidation within a number of diasporic communities,” Ms Pearson said.

“Some of them tried to contact the police, but felt their experiences were not understood or taken seriously.

“We … believe that abusive governments need to know that the Australian government will speak up and take action. It’s important to show solidarity with the people from those countries who have the courage to speak up and yet experience intimidation and harassment.”

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