Controlling the flow of international students Beijing’s next pawn in the race between China and the West? -Chinese Communist Party May Punish Australian Study Abroad Industry with Restrictions on International Students

A recent article by Australian academics suggests that the next step for the Chinese Communist Party could be to punish the Australian study abroad industry by restricting international students, amid deteriorating relations between China and Australia. The analysis suggests that controlling the flow of international students could become one of the policy options for the Chinese Communist authorities in the geopolitical, economic and technological showdown between China and the West.

Report: Tens of Billions of Australian Dollars in Study Abroad Industry Fears to be Shot

Australia’s relations with China have been at a low ebb in recent years because of the Australian government’s toughness on issues such as blocking Huawei, new crown traceability and anti-Communist infiltration. China has frequently restricted imports of Australian agricultural and mineral products since 2017, and even announced earlier this month the indefinite suspension of all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue mechanism co-led by China’s Development and Reform Commission and the Australian government.

Two academics at the Australian National University said in a policy report that Australia’s study abroad industry is likely to be the next target of punishment by the Chinese Communist Party.

The analysis says that in terms of economic contribution, the CCP’s influence on Australian students is comparable to that of traditional export industries such as iron ore, gas and coal, a significant industry of more than A$10 billion. The article argues that Australia’s education industry is dependent on China, and that if Beijing were to introduce restrictions against Australia’s education industry, it would hit the Australian education industry hard.

Benjamin Herscovitch, one of the report’s authors and a research fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, told Voice of America, “The entire Australian economy, including the Australian education sector, is incredibly dependent on the Chinese market. We are increasingly looking at alternative markets, not because Australian universities or the broader Australian economy don’t want to export to China, but because we are increasingly acutely aware of the political risks associated with a high dependence on the Chinese market. That is, the Chinese Communist Party may try to coerce our government through the mechanism of trade restrictions.”

Three Chinese students studying at the University of Sydney gather for a meal before returning home (Reuters, August 8, 2020)

This report says that before the new crown epidemic, Chinese students brought in A$12 billion a year to Australia. By comparison, the top three highest annual Australian exports to China are iron ore (about A$63 billion), natural gas (A$17 billion) and coal (A$14 billion).

China has reportedly been told by at least two smaller importers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to suspend new imports from Australia.

The article’s analysis suggests that by this reckoning, the education industry will be the next target of China’s axe to the Australian economy, as China has already introduced restrictions on imports of Australian coal and has yet to find an alternative source to Australia’s high-quality iron ore.

The article also says that unlike many industries currently under economic duress from China, education is an employment-intensive industry that is closely linked to Australia’s technological competitiveness.

Warning from Chinese Communist authorities

This warning from Australian academics is not unfounded. Chinese Communist Party officials have issued numerous warnings to nationals about studying in Australia in recent years.

In April 2020, the Chinese ambassador to Australia explicitly mentioned four Australian products that Chinese consumers might choose to avoid: wine, beef, tourism and the education industry. This came at a time of tension in China-Australia relations as Australian Prime Minister Morrison pushed for a “New Crown Source Survey”.

If things get bad, people will think about why they are going to a country that is not very friendly to China, and tourists might change their minds,” Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review at the time. Parents of students might wonder if this place they consider less friendly, even hostile, is still the best place to send their children.”

A little more than a month later, on June 9, 2020, China’s Ministry of Education issued its first study abroad alert of the year, falsely claiming that there had been several discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia during the epidemic and warning Chinese students to “make a good risk assessment” and to “choose carefully whether to study in or return to Australia “.

In January, China’s Ministry of Education issued a similar warning to Australian schools about studying abroad.

Heskovich said the study abroad industry is a global market, with many countries other than Australia offering English-language education, and that the Chinese government has a variety of mechanisms to direct the flow of students abroad to other countries.

Chinese students’ willingness to study abroad shaken by speculation about social issues in the U.S. and Australia?

One scenario could be that …… will have more Chinese educational institutions that push hard for higher education options in other (countries),” Heskovich said. Another possible way is for (the government) to go about influencing Chinese public opinion generally by increasing negative reporting about Australian society, about the Australian experience of living in Australia, highlighting the shocking incidents of racism that do exist in Australian society, and possibly including consular warnings, trying to encourage Chinese students or students interested in studying to choose other countries. “

Heskovich said that similar to the current situation of Chinese media hyping negative news in the United States, the Chinese Communist authorities’ controlled press opinion is using negative news in Australian society to influence the public’s perception of Australia.

“This is a problem, the information warfare or psychological warfare that the Chinese Communist Party is conducting against countries like Australia and the United States. We need to be aware of that and we need to look critically at the issues involved and, if necessary, push back against those different forms of propaganda.” Heskovich said, “I think countries like Australia or the United States, which are committed to the values of transparency and open liberal democracy, have an obligation to be honest about our shortcomings and the problems in our society, and that’s ultimately the only way we can really address and overcome them.”

The United States has long been a top destination for Chinese students going abroad. However, there have been recent signs that the appeal of higher education in the U.S. and Australia is beginning to trend downward.

A survey in the White Paper on Studying in China, released by Chinese English training company New Oriental Education & Technology Group 2020, shows that in the propensity to choose a country to study abroad, the United Kingdom overtook the United States for the first time in 2020 to become the top destination for Chinese students with 42 percent; between 2015 and 2020, the propensity to study in the United States dropped from 51 percent to 37 percent; Australia from 22 percent down to 16 percent, the same as Canada.

The report says that tensions between the U.S. and China in the last two years, as well as the reopening of the PSW visa and the short duration of study in the U.K., have led to an increase in the percentage of groups influencing study in the U.K.

China begins to control the outflow of highly skilled talent

U.S. universities are also increasingly dependent on the revenue generated by Chinese students. China is the largest source of international students in the U.S., with nearly 370,000 Chinese students studying in U.S. schools in the 2018-2019 academic year. In 2018, Chinese students brought $14.9 billion into the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. A report released by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education (IIE), citing data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, states that foreign students contributed a total of $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.

Remco Zwetsloot, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET), said China has shown in recent years that restricting the movement of international students is not only related to the economic and political coercion Australia has suffered, but may also involve China’s mentality of limiting the outflow of skilled talent.

Zervisloot told Voice of America, “In both cases, China is violating the norms of open science through immigration restrictions, but this tool can be used for different purposes.”

There is a previous precedent for China blocking the outflow of non-military skilled personnel. in 2018, Shao Yangyang, a doctoral student at the Shanghai Institute of Life Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was involved in creating the first artificial single chromosome eukaryotic cell, abandoned his application to go abroad for research after being advised by senior Chinese Academy of Sciences officials.

Science and Technology Daily reported in August 2018 that CAS President Bai Chunli said that after CAS’s efforts, Shao Yangyang, a doctoral student who published world-leading synthetic biology results in the journal Nature and was applying for a postdoctoral position overseas, eventually chose to stay in China.

As previously reported in Wen Wei Po, Shao’s postdoctoral application included a fellow U.S. lab that published a similar paper at the same time as CAS.

Qin Chongjun, Shao’s CAS advisor, told the newspaper, “For the sake of the student’s future, I want her to go abroad, but for the sake of the country, I really hope to keep her.”

Whether Shao’s case is an isolated case or a reflection of a long-term Chinese policy choice is not yet known, but the practice may become more common as more Chinese research labs move to the forefront, Georgetown University’s Zeversluiter said.