During his presentation at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum, Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, commented that the Chinese government issuing safety warnings to students going to Australia was a sign of serious problems between the two countries.
The warnings themselves were a concern, but the broader implications of his remarks were that after months of reporting within Australia and scathing reports in China, concerns over espionage, foreign interference, safety and Chinese scapegoating had finally spilled onto the global stage.
“I don’t think it’s [China’s] goal to undermine Australian democracy”
Now, the world knew China and Australia’s relations were cooling, and the latter’s international education sector was likely to be the worst affected.
But there was a problem with his remarks: they weren’t quite accurate.
In fact, instead of highlighting severely fractured diplomatic relations between Australia and China, Marginson inadvertently became the final player in a global game of telephone, in which an inaccurate report created a domino effect of mistruth.
In reality, while it is true a warning was issued to Chinese students to remain vigilant in Australia – 2018 Warning No. 1 for Study Abroad as it was called – did not originate from the Chinese government in Beijing. Instead, it came from the Chinese embassy in Canberra and consulates around Australia, written in Chinese, and slightly reworded on each consulate’s website.
This was the starting point.
For reasons that remain unclear, on some of the consulates’ websites, the warning was attributed to the Chinese Ministry of Education’s website. This point was then picked up by media outlets in Australia, who reported that it originated from the MoE, which in turn, was quickly shortened to simply the Chinese government, leading to widespread belief that China had directly warned students to flex its economic muscle against Australia.
Several policy documents, reports, and myriad other pieces on the issue later, a misunderstanding became a matter of fact on the other side of the world.
But while the case of the student warnings is easy to unpack, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and how the countries have arrived at a point where it is now within the realm of possibilities that China would issue such a stern and official rebuke of Australia is significantly harder to understand.
Where tensions lie
“We want to see China build a leadership role it desires in a way which strengthens the regional order”
“I think the current state of the relationship [between Australia and China], it’s not in a good place right now,” says Jackson Kwok, a policy analyst at public policy initiative China Matters.
“[But] it has recovered somewhat from the more tense moments which started last year and then intensified in December especially and January earlier this year.”
Speaking with The PIE News, Kwok acknowledges that the foundation of many of the reports on Chinese students is real. There is and has been political tensions between both China and Australia, beginning in March 2017, when Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop urged China to embrace democracy to reach its full economic potential.
Delivered at the International Institute of Strategic Studies Fullerton Lectures in Singapore, Bishop’s speech was not well received in Beijing, and relations worsened further when, three months later, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull used his IISS Shangri-La Dialogue address to urge China to make decisions with the interests of the region at heart.
“It is natural that Beijing will seek strategic influence to match its economic weight,” he told delegates.
“But we want to see China build a leadership role it desires in a way which strengthens the regional order that has served us all so well.”
Political tensions didn’t cross over into international education until, almost simultaneous to Turnbull’s speech, a series of joint reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media uncovered instances of China wielding influence in Australian universities.
Among the ways in which it interfered in Australia, the reports revealed Chinese consulates had been observing students to prevent dissidence, as well as penetrating student groups and transporting students to drown out protesters – a notable example of this occurring in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, when the consulate transported thousands of Chinese students to Canberra to protect the Olympic torch and subdue Tibetan supporters.
Since those stories, says Kwok, consistent reports of Chinese interference and spying, as well as a number of issues unrelated to international education such as China’s response to proposed foreign interference laws; Australia’s involvement and position within the South-China Sea; and the recently published Clive Hamilton book, Silent Invasion, has seen the relationship worsen on both sides, according to reports.
But he adds that some of these concerns are inflated, and according to IEAA CEO Phil Honeywood, the perception that China and Australia are headed towards a stand-off ignores the realities of what it means to be a regional partner.
“Because Australia is located within the Asia-Pacific region, clearly there will always be issues on which our two countries will disagree,” he tells The PIE.
“However, there is a recognition on all sides that it’s not in the interests of the wider region for these two large nations to have on-going detrimental geopolitical relationships,” he says, continuing that it’s more likely level heads will prevail.
More simply, puts Kwok, the idea that there are tensions between two countries overplays what are really just disagreements originating from perceived slights.
China has voiced its distaste for the foreign interference laws, for example, but that has more to do with timing, he says. The laws, which seek to protect Australian sovereignty and are currently being debated in parliament, look to prevent interference from all foreign entities, “but in the public sphere, it was quite clear that they were targeted at [China as it] is the most visible case.”
How international education fits in
Apart from the alleged use of international students as potential agents for political and academic interference, a separate issue being debated at the moment is Australian international education’s over-reliance on China as a source market, especially within the higher education and university sector.
China represents around 30% of all international students in Australia, but this more than doubles for some universities, a statistic which higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, Andrew Norton, says presents its own problem.
“The key issue here is that some universities have very large numbers of Chinese international students and they are quite reliant on the fee revenue these students provide, particularly to maintain their research activities,” he says.
Norton argues too many students from any country exposes institutions to risk and jeopardises research funding if there is a downturn, but adds universities aren’t blind to the problem.
“They are well aware this is a potential issue, and they’re taking a calculated risk that there are substantial profits to be made at least in the short and medium term, and they might as well do that,” he says.
However, he points out that an over-reliance on China as a source market creates the potential for ramifications for Australia.
“The tensions are one of the things that could lead to a decline in the numbers, but I don’t think the sheer numbers have caused the tension.”
“The key issue here is that some universities have very large numbers of Chinese international students”
That hasn’t stopped some outlets from conflating Norton’s observations with those made by Hamilton, who has been reported as saying that Chinese cash is “corroding the soul of our universities”, a line repeated in headlines and reports from several Australian outlets.
Norton retorts – he isn’t that dramatic – and even though he sees some compelling evidence in Silent Invasion to warrant concern of security risks, it’s not yet enough to justify deterring Chinese students from coming to Australia altogether.
Kwok adds that conflating the issues of the number of students and foreign interference, as well as making an argument that students are having a noticeable impact on Australian higher education and society, alleges more than is due.
“I don’t think it’s [China’s] goal to undermine Australian democracy in the way that alarmists might consider,” he says.
Instead, he says many of those protesting are “overzealous students who see themselves as patriots defending their country” and that it’s “difficult to say definitively whether there’s a systematic strategy for this”. But he does recognise serious issues concerning foreign interference on Australian campuses, such as monitoring of Chinese international students.
Disagreeing with a lecturer – several instances of which appeared in reports last year, ranging from students posting on social media over the recognition of Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate territories to one academic’s pop quiz which claimed a popular Chinese saying was government officials only spoke the truth when drunk – is part of higher education.
“There shouldn’t be a problem expressing China’s view on something,” Kwok argues, “but this requires respect for open debate and academic freedom.”
“Shouting down lecturers or forcing them to apologise for perceived offences is not acceptable.”
Views from China
Outside speculation on how Chinese students perceive these disagreements, it’s quite difficult to get a realistic understanding of their full impact.
A recent story around the delay of study visas for Chinese PhD students, for example, blew up in the Chinese language version of the state-run Global Times, which included some remarks that students should consider not going to Australia. Other publications, within Australia, said Chinese students felt they were being treated as spies.
“It’s too early yet to see any movement in student visa data”
In the Global Times report, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs is quoted as saying Chinese PhD visa applicants were treated the same as those from other countries, but the paper nonetheless labelled the process as politically motivated.
Meanwhile the China Scholarship Council, which comes under the MoE banner, also issued a statement telling PhD students to “understand the Australian visa policy, and carefully choose the country of study abroad”, but did not include comments of the possible political links.
But it could be a case of retaliatory action, with speculation and commentary coming from both country’s media outlets, exemplified by Global Times‘ declaration that the assault of three Chinese high school students in Canberra was a “turning point, reshaping Chinese people’s foundation for understanding Australian society” and referencing anger at negative portrayals, as The PIE reported.
But the media is jumping the gun says Honeywood, pointing to several reports recently linking a flattening of offshore higher education visa grants from China to the disputes.
“It’s too early yet to see any movement in student visa data that would suggest that the recent media reporting or rhetoric has had an impact on the two-way flow of student numbers,” Honeywood tells The PIE.
“We won’t know for some months as to whether there have been any negative trends coming from Chinese students coming to study in Australia. The most recent data is to December 2017; Chinese students would have made up their minds months before that.”
But the open media fight and accompanying speculation could all be for nought.
In a twist, the concerns referenced by Marginson aren’t registering with mainland China, according to a media advisory from the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association.
“Since the safety warnings are issued by the Chinese consulate in Australia, and not from the Chinese Ministry of Education, it didn’t attract adequate attention in the mainland,” it reads, adding that safety concerns are relevant to all study destinations, regardless of potential underlying political motivations”.
Instead, recent school shootings in the US are causing far more concern.
“We often work with the media on public awareness campaigns to help keep parents consistently knowledgeable and up to date on safety issues. But safety concerns are not limited to Australia. The recent school shootings in the United States are causing the public to worry more about safety while studying abroad in the US.”
“Overall in regards to Australia’s safety warning; since it was not issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education, it doesn’t largely impact students who want to study in Australia.”
But while speculation on how Chinese students, their parents, and the wider population perceives Australia as a trading partner, study destination and tourist spot runs rampant in both countries’ media, the reality may be just as complicated. We’ll just have to wait and see.