Chinese pro-democracy students attending universities in Australia are being harassed and live-in fear of the punishment if they speak out on sensitive issues, a new report has found.
Human Rights Watch has observed that such students and academics feel pressure and are being surveilled in Australia thus leading to self-censorship in classrooms. The academic freedom of Australian universities is being undermined by the perceived pressure.
Australian’s higher education system relies heavily on the fee-paying Chinese students, which accounted for 40% of all international students in the country pre-Covid. This is about 160,000 Chinese students who are enrolled in Australian universities. Due to the growing influence of China on the academic ground of Australia in recent years, diplomatic relations between the two countries have deteriorated.
According to the students interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the ‘atmosphere of fear’ has increased in recent years. Three cases where a student’s actions have been brought to the attention of their parents or relatives by the police asking them to explain the said actions, research confirmed.
One case even saw a student being threatened with jail since he opened a Twitter account that posted pro-democracy messages in Australia.
Report said: “ Many feared fellow students reporting them to the Chinese embassy. Fear that what they did in Australia could result in Chinese authorities punishing or interrogating their parents back home weighed heavily in the minds of every pro-democracy student interviewed.”
There has been a rise in harassment of the students since the local pro-Hong Kong protests in 2019. Among the students interviewed, 11 were from China mainland and 13 were from Hong Kong. Students say that they were abused verbally and online after they participated in rallies or expressing criticism towards the Chinese government. Some were ‘doxed’ – where their personal details were given away, according to reports.
One case has been relayed to the report whereby a female tutor who tried to protect a Taiwanese student from being bullied by a mainland Chinese student found her personal information leaked online on Chinese social media.
According to Human Rights Watch, those actions are carried out by a small but highly motivated minority rather than most Chinese students. Academics also saw that increase in nationalism among the students has been on rise since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. They also reported that on certain occasions the university management deterred them to discuss China publicly and discourage from holding Chinese- related events.