Drew Pavlou is an unlikely threat to the Chinese Communist party. The 20-year-old arts student at Australia’s University of Queensland has never even been to the country. But his decision to organise a campus demonstration in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters has sparked a diplomatic incident between Canberra and Beijing and put him on a collision course with the Chinese authorities.
The July 24 protest turned violent, with clashes between pro- and anti-Beijing students. The organisers were subsequently accused by China’s consular-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, of being “separatists” and “anti-China activists”.
Mr Pavlou has lodged a police complaint against Mr Xu alleging that the consular-general’s statement exposed the young student to death threats. It claims that the statement is evidence of efforts by Beijing and its network of foreign representatives to silence critics and limit freedom of speech on campuses.
The arts student is also urging the university to close its Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and cultural centre on campus funded by Beijing, and reverse its decision to appoint Mr Xu as an adjunct professor.
A separate legal action lodged by Mr Pavlou against Mr Xu will be heard on November 22 at Brisbane Magistrates Court. The student has asked the court to issue a form of restraining order against Mr Xu — that would require him to stop any activity that threatens to cause harm to Mr Pavlou. But the senior Chinese official has not yet said whether he will attend court or defend the action.
The spillover of tensions generated by the Hong Kong protests at colleges in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and elsewhere has intensified a global debate about Beijing’s influence at western universities where annual enrolment of Chinese students doubled to 869,000 in the decade to 2017, according to the Centre for Independent Studies, a Sydney-based think-tank. It is a concern that extends beyond Beijing’s monitoring of its own citizens on overseas campuses: bleeding into areas such as research and development and cyber security.
“Australian academic independence is being bought by the Chinese government,” says Mr Pavlou. “Beijing exercises so much financial leverage over our universities that it can stifle all criticism of the Chinese government on campus.”
The university strongly rejects Mr Pavlou’s criticisms, saying it is committed to free speech and insists its ties with Mr Xu and the Confucius Institute are entirely appropriate. But the violent scenes have alarmed Australia’s conservative government, which rebuked Mr Xu for his comments and has created a foreign interference task force staffed by security service personnel and academics to monitor the university sector.
It is expected to issue guidelines by the end of November on how to strengthen cyber security on campuses, reduce the risk of sensitive military and dual-use intellectual property being obtained by the Chinese government or military, and safeguard academic freedom at colleges.
Canberra’s focus on rooting out foreign influence, first in politics and now universities, has angered Beijing and alarmed some Australian academics, who warn it risks labelling all Chinese students as spies, promoting xenophobia and causing irreparable damage to bilateral relations, with two-way trade worth A$213bn last year. But critics counter that universities are turning a blind eye to Beijing’s alleged interference on campus because the sector has become dependent on Chinese money.
“This is a wake-up call for all of us, whether it be government, the university sector or business,” says Dan Tehan, Australia’s education minister. “We need to understand the best way we can deal with the threat [of foreign interference].”
The influx of Chinese students buoyed college coffers at a time when many western governments were cutting education budgets in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Universities say Chinese students make a valuable contribution beyond fee income by fostering diversity, new ways of thinking in classes and personal links to the world’s second-biggest economy. But they do also make a substantial financial difference, paying at least three to four times more in fees than domestic students.
In 2017 the University of Sydney generated about A$500m in fees from Chinese students — almost a quarter of its total A$2.3bn revenue for the year. Foreign students contributed A$32bn to Australia’s economy in the year to the end of June 2018.
Critics counter that the surge in Chinese student numbers, who make up one in 10 of those enrolled at Australia’s top eight universities — raises questions about the sector’s reliance on Chinese funding, cyber security and the extent to which the ruling Communist party seeks to influence student organisations and quash criticism of Beijing on campuses.
Such concerns are not restricted to Australia. In Canada, which is embroiled in a diplomatic spat with Beijing following the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, a declassified report by the national spy service warned last year that China is targeting its “diaspora as a means of increasing international influence”.
Western intelligence services are also said to be stepping up their scrutiny of research collaboration with China, particularly in “dual use” technologies, and the extent to which Beijing uses overseas students to scoop up valuable intellectual property and influence debates on China in overseas institutions.
And in a nod to their concerns over Beijing, the UK House of Commons foreign affairs committee last week recommended that the government “engages in dialogue with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US to explore ways to protect universities from attempts by autocracies to use their financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding”.
Colourful Post-it notes pinned to rival “Lennon walls” — named after the late musician — at the University of Queensland mark out the opposing territories of pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing students. With protests escalating in Hong Kong against the territory’s authorities, the boards are a visual reminder of the continuing tensions on Australian campuses.
Jack Yiu, a student from Hong Kong at the University of Queensland, shows grainy video footage captured on his mobile phone of a Chinese student ripping down messages from the Lennon wall. When the student is challenged by a university security guard he appears to tell him that he will make a complaint to the Chinese ambassador in Australia about his treatment.
“Students from Hong Kong fear they are being targeted on campus,” says Mr Yiu, a former head of the university’s Hong Kong Student Association. “But also [fear] that Chinese authorities are monitoring their involvement at protests in Australia and can cause us trouble when we go home.”
A week after the UQ protest, a similar pro-Hong Kong demonstration at New Zealand’s University of Auckland led to a female Hong Kong student being pushed to the ground by rival protesters. The pro-Beijing group was later publicly praised by China’s consulate in Auckland for its “spontaneous patriotism” in language almost identical to that used by Mr Xu in Brisbane.
Neither Mr Xu, the Chinese embassy in Canberra or the Chinese Students and Scholars Association — which represents the country’s students and academics studying in Australia — responded to FT requests for comment about the allegations made by Mr Pavlou. None of them would agree to be interviewed by the FT. The University of Queensland also refused a request for interview but said it fully supported free speech on campus.
“Bullying and intimidating behaviour, including hate speech, will not be tolerated at UQ,” it said.
Many Chinese students who spoke to the FT said the Australian concerns about Beijing’s influence are misplaced and risk ostracising their community.
“The Chinese government and consulate have absolutely no role in the university. It just isn’t happening,” says Jacky He, president of the students’ union at the University of Sydney, who moved to Australia from China with his parents aged 10. “It is important to realise that Chinese students are not all CCP members and their views are not monolithic.”
It is a view shared by Yuan Jiang, a PhD student at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. “People are always trying to view Chinese students as a single group to analyse, but that is not right. Most Chinese students just want to study and stay out of trouble.
“There is a chance that Chinese parents will read about this influence debate and may encourage their children to go to other countries rather than Australia,” adds Mr Jiang.
Chinese students enrolled in western universities in 2017, double the number of a decade earlier
The value of trade between China and Australia last year
University of Sydney’s fees from Chinese students in 2017, almost 25% of its total revenue for the year
Australian universities worry that Chinese students could go elsewhere to study, including the UK, which has revamped its visa regime to make it more attractive to overseas students. There are already signs of a slow down with a dip in Chinese student visas issued in the June quarter and Macquarie University in Sydney implementing budget cuts, at least in part because of a fall in international students.
“The debate over Chinese interference at universities has become exaggerated to such an extent by some commentators that it risks stoking racism, even if that is not the intent,” says James Laurenceson, acting director of the Australian-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.
He blames Australia’s fear of abandonment by its main strategic ally, the US, as one reason for the campaign against “Chinese interference” by some politicians and conservative media outlets.
“It is simply not right to make a general claim that Chinese students studying here in Australia are rampantly nationalist pro-CCP or allege they are shutting down free expression.”
Yet the deepening research relationship between western universities and Chinese academics is ringing alarm bells. Human Rights Watch recently flagged up concerns about a A$10m research partnership between University Technology Sydney and CETC, a Chinese state owned military firm that has developed an app used to track Muslim Uighur citizens in Xinjiang — the western Chinese province where there have been mass detentions over the past two years.
An investigation by Australian state broadcaster ABC also raised concerns about work on Chinese government-funded research conducted by an associate professor at Curtin University near Perth, Liu Wan-Quan. The research used artificial intelligence to better identify ethnic minorities in China.
Both universities are reviewing funding and research approval procedures linked to the projects. UTS said it would cease work on one of its projects with CETC, which potentially raised concerns identified in the HRW report, according to a review, which also identified the opaqueness of CETC’s ownership as a “further challenge”.
Curtin University says the researcher had advised it that he was solely focused on the provision of technical advice and that “he has not received any academic funding from the Chinese Government”.
But critics remain unconvinced and are lobbying Canberra to impose tighter controls on collaborative research.
“It is clear that universities have been extremely lax in some of their research collaboration projects and this is causing serious concern at Australia’s defence and security agencies,” says Clive Hamilton, an academic and author of Silent Invasion: Chinese Influence in Australia.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra think-tank, detailed how China’s People’s Liberation Army has sponsored 2,500 military scientists and engineers in western universities since 2007. Nearly all were CCP members, who returned to China after completing their research.
“Helping a rival military develop its expertise and technology isn’t in the national interest,” says Alex Joske, author of the report. “Yet it’s not clear that western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon.”
Australia and other western nations risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese funding and research expertise in key sectors such as engineering if they ban or place very strict rules on R&D collaboration.
Mr Laurenceson warns that blocking Australian scientists from collaborating with their Chinese counterparts could do irreparable damage to the country’s research base. “China is now a knowledge generation hub and ahead of Australia in many areas,” he says. “International collaboration is fundamental to the success of Australian universities — plenty of these Chinese researchers would be happy to collaborate in Europe or elsewhere.”