Chinese students in Australia: You can’t jump out of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance even if you go abroad

The Chinese government and its supporters are spying on, harassing and threatening Chinese students in Australia, while Australian universities are failing to effectively protect students’ rights to academic freedom in order to preserve their relationship with the Chinese government, according to a report released Wednesday (June 29) by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

The Human Rights Watch report was released locally in Australia on June 30.

The report says that official Chinese surveillance is widespread in Australian universities and colleges, and that students who support the Chinese government threaten pro-democracy students by reporting to Chinese officials in Australia.

The report notes that Chinese students are aware and fearful that the Chinese government is monitoring them. Many have had to engage in self-coverage and self-censorship to avoid being reported to Chinese officials in Australia by their classmates and getting themselves and their families into trouble.

Sophie McNeil, a contributor to the report, said that “the management of Australia’s tertiary institutions are not doing their part to uphold the rights of Chinese students”. By relying on the tuition fees paid by international students, the university has turned a blind eye to harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its agents. McNeil called on Australian universities to protest to China and take steps to support the academic freedom of students and staff.

The issue experienced by Chinese students in Australia is so sensitive that it is often tied to funding and is even a diplomatic issue. According to the Associated Press, international education is a major export for Australia. in 2019, Australian international education contributed $30 billion to the country’s economy. Before the pandemic, Chinese students accounted for upwards of 40 percent of all foreign students.

The report cites several student cases to illustrate how Chinese authorities control the speech of international students. What they say or do abroad is quickly transmitted to the country through multiple channels. Chinese police will interview or summon the parents of students to ask questions about their children’s behavior in Australia. One student was threatened by Chinese authorities for posting pro-democracy comments on his Twitter account and was later sentenced to prison.

Another student had his passport confiscated by Chinese authorities upon his return to China for demonstrating his support for democracy in front of his classmates. The report said the students interviewed were so afraid that their words and actions in Australia might get them and their parents back home in trouble that they always double-assessed before speaking publicly.