Report: Chinese students in Australia threatened by Beijing

SYDNEY, AP - China's government and its allies have harassed, intimidated, and threatened pro-democracy Chinese students in Australia. Australian universities have also failed to protect students' academic freedoms, Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday.According to the report, the fear of intimidation that includes classmates reporting students' activities to Chinese officials has increased in recent years. Many Chinese students and academics living in Australia are now afraid of being retaliated against by their Chinese families.It was truly heartbreaking to see how isolated these students felt and how vulnerable they were, according Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. These issues are often brushed under the rug by universities because they fear a Beijing backlash. We think they can't be.According to the report, which was compiled from interviews with 24 students and 22 academics at Australian universities, three instances saw police in China visit or request to meet students' families. Human Rights Watch stated that Chinese authorities threatened to imprison one student for posting pro-democracy tweets in Australia and took the passport of another student who supported democracy in front Australian classmates.McNeill stated that these cases are of particular concern to students from China in Australia.McNeill stated that these are all one-child families, and they would love to have the same freedoms as other young Australians. They live in constant fear for their parents' deaths.The group interviewed all students who said that they were concerned about Chinese officials interrogating their families or punishing them in Australia. Most students said that they had censored their Australian activities and words. Over half of the academics who were either studying China or from China said that they also censored their own speech when discussing China.Continue the storyHuman Rights Watch was told by one student that this is the truth. I came to Australia, but Im still not free.This issue is sensitive diplomatically and financially for Australian universities. They have been encouraged to develop partnerships with China by the government and have made billions in this way.Australia's largest export is international education. It contributed 40 billion Australian dollars ($30billion) to its economy in 2019. According to the Centre for Independent Studies (an Australian think tank), more than 40% of international students in Australia were Chinese before the COVID-19 epidemic.In response to the pandemic, Australia closed its borders to foreign students in March 2020. Universities Australia, an umbrella group representing the universities of Australia, reported that universities had lost AU$1.8 million ($1.4 billion) in revenue and they are likely to lose another AU$2billion ($1.5 billion) this fiscal year. Some international students could be allowed to return to Australia through a pilot program that was recently announced.Beijing is particularly concerned about foreign interference. Australia passed laws in 2018 that were widely regarded as a way to prevent Chinese interference in Australian politics, universities, and other institutions. These laws angered China and increased tensions between the two countries.Many of the harassed students told Human Rights Watch that they did not report the incident to their universities as they believed they cared more about maintaining good relations with Beijing.Catriona Jackson (chief executive of Universities Australia) said that the report was both shocking and not surprising. She encouraged Chinese students and staff members to report harassment to their universities.Jackson claimed that universities have not turned a blindeye to Chinese interference, and they are actively working with security agencies to combat the problem as part of the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce which was established in 2019.Jackson stated that free debate, open intellectual inquiry and the contest of ideas are at the core of all Australian universities' activities. We should be supporting the very thing that makes us unique.McNeill stated that more publicity about the threats could deter them from occurring. Human Rights Watch asked the government to publish an annual document on harassment and censorship of international student and establish a mechanism that allows students to report any intimidation or censorship involving foreign governments. They also encouraged universities to report incidents like this to the police.Alan Tudge, Federal Education Minister, stated that he was reviewing the recommendations and seeking advice form the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. This committee is investigating national security threats affecting higher education.Tudge stated in a statement that there are many deeply troubling issues in the report. Foreign entities should not interfere on our campuses.