As Bonnie Wong* watched a pro-democracy protest at the University of Queensland in mid-2019, she noticed some people loitering off to the side.
- A new Human Rights Watch report details increasing harassment of Chinese students studying in Australia
- Pro-democracy students are censoring themselves due to fears they may be “reported on” by fellow classmates
- HRW says the worsening atmosphere of fear is threatening free speech and academic freedom
The student did not recognise them, but their presence triggered both curiosity and fear.
“They weren’t participating in a protest, but just taking pictures of us,” she said.
Bonnie hails from Hong Kong, and had been instrumental in helping to organise the rally.
The demands at the protest for Beijing to drop its highly contentious national security law, planned for the semi-autonomous city, attracted the attention of people she suspected to be pro-China activists.
“They actually send those pictures online to Chinese social media, for example Weibo, to publicly defame us and try to expose our identities,” she said.
“[That] will put us at risk, to say that we are actually separators, and we are challenging the security or the national security of China, which is definitely not the case.
Bonnie said one of the other organisers of the rally, who is a member of the persecuted Uyghur minority, felt the full force of reprisals after the protest.
“After a certain period of time, he suddenly received a phone call from [Chinese Communist Party] agents,” she said.
“This is very concerning, and this is definitely exposing how dangerous it is just to speak up at protests at universities.”
Students fear being ‘doxed’
Bonnie is among almost 50 students and academics who spoke to Human Rights Watch, as it investigated allegations of intimidation, harassment and surveillance of Chinese and Hong Kong students on Australian university campuses.
Many reported concerns about being “doxed”, which is when people on social media share personal details about individuals, such as their home address, without their consent.
But for others the fear of reprisals went much further, as they dreaded what would happen to their family and friends if they made a stand on issues such as the political situation in Hong Kong.
Researcher Sophie McNeill said the behaviour by supporters of the Chinese state was fuelling an atmosphere of anxiety across the country, and students and academics were choosing to not express honestly held opinions so as not to rock the boat.
“It was really quite shocking to see how pervasive and common not only harassment and intimidation, but it’s the self-censorship, I think, that is really quite shocking,” Ms McNeill said.
“We interviewed people who had been teaching Chinese students for years and just said, ‘look, I don’t use negative examples of China anymore, because I’m worried about being reported on or doxed online, or I have already been talking about China now’.”
Human Rights Watch said the activities that attracted the attention of Chinese authorities and supporters ranged from the fairly mundane, such as creating a personal Twitter account (where Twitter is blocked in China), through to participating in pro-democracy rallies and debating the sovereignty of Taiwan in university tutorials.
Ms McNeill said she had confirmed one Chinese student who had set up a social media profile in Australia had his passport confiscated once he returned to China.
“Someone who expressed support for pro-democracy movements in Australia was threatened with being reported to Chinese authorities. And it actually happened, and he’s now suffering real personal repercussions for that.”
Australia needs to be ‘laying down a firm line’
Education Minister Alan Tudge said the Human Rights Watch report raised “deeply concerning issues”.
“Any interference on our campuses by foreign entities cannot be tolerated,” he said in a statement.
“We have already taken several actions to combat foreign interference and are working closely with the universities and we will soon be updating our university guidelines.”
Mr Tudge said Federal Parliament’s powerful Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security was already investigating national security risks in the higher education sector.
The Minister’s concerns were echoed by the federal Opposition.
“One of the great benefits of an Australian university education should be that we can show students from around the world that freedom of thought, robust debate, and polite disagreement is healthy,” Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said.
“It’s important that universities protect these freedoms.”
The ABC has contacted the Chinese Embassy for comment.
The Human Rights Watch report made a number of recommendations as to how the situation could be improved for foreign students enrolled at Australian institutions, after finding many students were not reporting their concerns because they did not believe their complaints would be handled properly.
One of the organisation’s demands was for universities to publicly acknowledge instances and allegations of harassment and intimidation.
“Laying down a firm line, letting students know that if you engage in this behaviour that it’s violating the academic code of conduct, and you could lose your spot at the uni if you do it,” Ms McNeil said.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson was wary of what that might mean for the privacy of the students involved.
“That could be really very complex,” she said.
But Ms Jackson conceded there was work to be done.
“Every single university leader will be saddened and concerned to read the details of the Human Rights Watch report,” she said.
“I’d like to say I’m surprised, but no, we’re not particularly surprised.
“It’s not just one country, it’s a number of countries — but certainly there are issues of students and staff not feeling free to speak, and that’s absolutely not on.”
Ms Jackson said the higher education sector was in deep discussion with the government on how to address issues of freedom of speech and interference on campuses.
“Universities just can’t deal with this all by themselves, it’s got to be a matter of it gets dealt with at a government level, as well as institution level,” she said.
“Your heart does go out to those students who are afraid — they’re afraid of what might happen when they go home.
“Universities can do lots of things, but they can’t surround them and protect them when they’re not even in the same country’s institution.”
According to Human Rights Watch, around 40 per cent of international students studying in Australia came from China.
Ms Jackson rejected suggestions universities were sweeping the issue under the carpet, concerned about losing the lucrative Chinese student market.
“I don’t see any evidence at all that institutions are less forthright with a commitment to free academic inquiry and free speech on campus,” she said.
Bonnie is adamant that despite the fear she has experienced, she would not stop advocating for causes she believed in.
“No matter how huge the threat is, I don’t think we should stop, and I don’t think I will stop,” she said.
“This fight is not only related to Hong Kongers, but also Australians because I think the Australian authorities should be protecting Australian students and also stand up for what they used to stand up for.
* The name Bonnie Wong is a pseudonym
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