“Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at HRW.
“The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”
The 102-page report, authored by McNeill, documents an uptick in the harassment of pro-democracy and ethnic minority students that has becoming increasingly prevalent since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013.
It describes incidents of doxxing, threats and of pro-Beijing students reporting ‘incidents’ to the Chinese embassy, as well as more bizarre cases such as sending fake resignation letters to universities under the name of those academics who have fallen afoul of Beijing’s supporters.
Students also reported that following being doxxed, people would wait for them outside their homes, which resulted in one student spending several nights sleeping in his car as he was too afraid to return.
Others were asked by police officers in China to spy on communities in Australia.
“They [state security officers] were trying to get information about the Uyghur community in Australia,” said Adam, who is also Uyghur.
“They said they would pay for my Australian studies if I spied. They said I only have to go to the events; I just have to take videos of who joined the events. Adelaide and Melbourne Uyghur events. Visit the families and provide their addresses, car registration, what kind of car they drive and what kind of job they do.”
Upon returning to Australia, officials continued to try to contact him and get information, harassment which came to a head when he took part in pro-Hong Kong demonstrations in 2019.
“After I joined the demonstration, police asked my mum to go to the local station,” he said.
“There was a police officer next to my mum and she would say I should be very grateful to the Party”
“It happened a few times. Most of the time there was a police officer next to my mum and she would say I should be very grateful to the Party and without the Party you couldn’t go and study overseas.
“I knew she had to say what they wanted.”
Harassment is not however limited to those who joined protests. Discussing so-called sensitive topics, namely Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, has also ignited the ire of vocal pro-Beijing students.
Sometimes simply referring to Taiwan as a country can be enough to trigger a barrage of attacks.
Yet common thread in the incidents described by students is that while they often filed police reports, few reported threats and intimidation to their universities.
The reason they most commonly gave was a feeling that universities’ dependency on Chinese money would mean they were not listened to.
With nearly 160,000 Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities in 2020, before the pandemic around 40% of onshore international students came from China. There have been increasing calls for greater diversification as concerns about academic freedom mount.
Teaching staff also noted this dependence was not lost on pro-Beijing students.
“Chinese students often retort that as full fee-paying students, the universities are lucky to have them”
“Chinese students often retort that as full fee-paying students, the universities are lucky to have them,” HRW said teaching staff told them.
“Therefore, their views and opinions should be respected and not challenged.”
Academics and students both said universities lacked adequate means to respond to harassment cases.
“Instead of directly addressing these issues, with universities proactively explaining the lines of acceptable behaviour to students, these incidents tended to be quickly swept under the carpet with institutions simply muddling through until the next time,” noted the report.
The report additionally suggested that better pastoral care by universities could help protect students.
For instance, a lot of crucial students support services for Chinese students are currently provided by Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, which are known for their close links – including financial – to embassies and have been involved in disrupting protests.
“There is a degree of outsourcing these student welfare things to the CSSA. Universities are happy to outsource that stuff, the pastoral care stuff, they see it as a way to reduce costs in that area,” said one academic.
“Universities have not invested enough in the pastoral care of these Chinese students despite the fact they bring in millions. I think in many regards we are doing the bare minimum.”
In response to the report, organisations have expressed concern about the findings. Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of UNSW, said that the report was “further evidence of the need for the review of policies and practices that UNSW already has underway”.
However, others suggested that policies for dealing with these incidents already exist.
“Universities have long-established and robust policies to deal with coercion and intimidation”
“Universities have long-established and robust policies to deal with coercion and intimidation on our campuses. We urge students to come forward to universities to report any incidents of concern,” said Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson.
“Universities Australia’s members – the nation’s 39 comprehensive universities – are unequivocally committed to academic freedom and intellectual enquiry.
“We will be looking carefully at the Human Rights Watch report, as will the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce, to see what additional practical steps can be taken to protect students and staff.”