Human Rights Watch has accused Australian universities of failing to protect the academic freedom of Chinese students who support democracy, saying many of them have changed their behavior and practiced self-censorship to avoid persecution and be “reported” to it. authority to return home.
In a novel report published Wednesday, HRW said Australian universities – which depend on the costs borne by international students – have “taken a look at concerns regarding persecution and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies”.
The group said it interviewed 24 pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong, and verified three cases in which police in China visited or asked to meet with their families regarding student activities. in Australia.
In one case, Chinese authorities threatened a prison student after opening a Twitter account while studying in Australia and posting pro-democracy messages.
The student told HRW that police in mainland China “contacted my parents … and issued an official warning and told me to ‘shut up uf ** k up.”
“They said I should shut down my Twitter, stop spreading anti-government messages and if I don’t cooperate, they can accuse me of crime,” the student said. “I deleted my Twitter account. Because I’m worried about my parents. ”
HRW also said that pro-Beijing students in Australia harass and intimidate those who express their support for democracy movements. A female student reported receiving a threatening message from a classmate after attending a Hong Kong democracy rally in Australia.
“It was like, ‘Look at this. Personally, I was really scared,'” he said. “I was in a course with 98 percent of students on the continent. The students spoke badly to me. That I was not loyal to the country. ”
HRW said every pro-democracy student interviewed expressed fear that their activities in Australia could cause Chinese authorities to punish or interrogate their family at home, and said these concerns had influenced what they said. in class, their choice of friends and even their decisions about which classes or events to attend.
“I have to censor myself,” said one student from the mainland. “That’s the reality, I came to Australia and I’m still not free. I’m never talking about politics here. ”
But most of these students have not reported the nuisance to their university, HRW said, citing a belief that their university will not take the threat seriously or that they fear their university will be sympathetic only to Chinese students. – Beijing.
The harassment was not limited to just the students, according to HRW.
The group said pro-Beijing students and social media users have also subjected some academics at Australian universities to harassment, intimidation and doxxing – by publishing their personal information – if academics are perceived as critical of the Communist Party. Chinese or discusses “sensitive” topics such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong or Xinjiang.
In a case last year, pro-Beijing supporters intimidated, harassed and convicted an academic who described Taiwan as a country and spoke out in defense of a Taiwanese student. As a result, HRW said the Australian university would have to temporarily remove the academic teaching profile from the university’s website.
HRW said academics who specialize in or specialize in Chinese Studies also said they practiced self-censorship regularly while talking about China. An academic also said that a university official had told him to propose a “sanitized” version of his Chinese Studies unit.
“When all our teaching went online, I received an email from the IT leadership, saying they had created a VPN. [virtual private network] in China, there was some concern about the content of teaching, “he told HRW.” Another academic, who also taught another unit of Chinese Studies, had offered a ‘sanitized’ version of that course to students. of the PRC. Is that something I’ll be willing to consider for my course? I said, “No I’m not willing to do that.”
All of this, HRW said, was part of an effort by the Chinese government to undermine academic freedom around the world. He said the Chinese government has become more daring in recent years by trying to monitor Chinese students abroad and by censoring academic discussions and scholarly inquiry.
Universities in Australia – where about 40 per cent of all international students come from China – need to do more to address the Chinese government’s actions, said Sophie McNeill, an Australian researcher at HRW.
“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to defend the rights of China’s students,” he said. “Australian universities rely on the rights that international students carry, while keeping an eye on concerns about persecution and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies. Universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the university freedom of these students and staff.