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Australia Inquiry on Beijing Academic Freedom Threats

Foreign Interference, Harassment of Students and Academics

Students at the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, December 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Baker, File

On Friday, the Australian parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security released their long-awaited report examining foreign interference at Australian universities.

During their inquiry, the committee heard evidence that Chinese government supporters threatened and intimidated pro-democracy students from China as well as university staff. The report makes strong recommendations to universities and Australia’s government to counter this state-backed harassment, which resulted in Chinese students’ self-censorship, fear, and inability to engage fully in many parts of their studies.

The committee also urged universities to develop a secure way for students to anonymously report incidents of censorship, retaliation, and harassment on campus if a student believes those acts are associated with foreign interference. 

It recommended the government’s Department of Education, Skills and Training partner with the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which draws members from both universities and the government’s education and security sectors, and annually publish a report that documents incidents of foreign interference leading to harassment, intimidation, and censorship on Australian university campuses. This report should include the steps and responses that universities take.

The report also included practical measures to protect students, such as allowing for anonymous assignment submission and closer scrutiny of student associations linked to authoritarian governments. It also recommends that universities retain control over what students are taught at Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, and that universities publicly disclose how the institutes are funded.

Several of these recommendations were called for by Human Right Watch in our June 2021 report on China’s interference with academic freedom in Australia’s universities: “They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have.” 

Human Rights Watch intends to work with the committee and Australian universities so that the committee’s recommendations are adopted and implemented as soon as possible.

But it is not just universities in Australia that are confronting these delicate issues.

Campuses around the world are increasingly vulnerable to Beijing’s global campaign to undermine human rights. Recent incidents at universities – including Chinese government funding of a human rights center in the Netherlands and intimidation in the United States – show that these on-campus issues are not going away anytime soon.

Universities and governments around the world should pay close attention to the findings of Australia’s parliamentary inquiry. They should also be aware of practical steps universities can take to push back against Beijing’s efforts, and ensure students and staff feel that their fundamental liberties are protected.

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