Allegations of undue Chinese influence on Australian universities has sparked protests on campuses across the country in recent years
Allegations of undue Chinese influence on Australian universities has sparked protests on campuses across the country in recent years © EPA-EFE

One of Australia’s most prestigious universities has been accused of censorship following its decision to delete social media posts promoting an article critical of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong.

The University of New South Wales also temporarily removed the article headlined “China Needs International Pressure To End Hong Kong Wrongs” from its website at the weekend, following a backlash from Chinese students and state media. It later reversed the decision but the controversy has reignited concerns about academic freedom and foreign influence at Australian universities, which rely heavily on Chinese students for revenues.

“This latest incident indicates that the Chinese Consul-General in Sydney has more influence in the university [UNSW] than the minister for education. The latter ought to intervene decisively to protect free speech in this country,” said Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University and author of a book on Chinese influence efforts.

Intelligence agencies in the US, UK and Australia have raised concerns about Beijing’s efforts to interfere with free speech at universities and influence the millions of Chinese students studying abroad. Last year, Canberra set up a task force to protect universities from foreign influence following clashes between mainland Chinese and pro-democracy students from Hong Kong.

The article quoted Elaine Pearson, an adjunct lecturer at UNSW and director of Human Rights Watch in Australia, who called on the UN to establish a special envoy to closely monitor the decline of human rights in Hong Kong.

But it generated a furious response and the Global Times, the state-owned Chinese tabloid, reported students had demanded an apology from UNSW over its decision to publish the article.

UNSW said on Monday that freedom of speech was of the highest importance but that the social media posts were not in line with its policies, as “the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university”.

UNSW did not comment on why it had temporarily removed the article or whether it had received a formal complaint from the Chinese embassy in Canberra. The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms Pearson said she was seeking clarification from UNSW.

“Clearly that discussion hit a nerve for some pro-Chinese Communist party (pro-CCP) supporters who aggressively and collectively pressured the university to remove the story,” she said.

Dan Tehan, Australia’s education minister, said universities should be institutions that protect freedom of speech, debate and the challenge of ideas.

“Our government recognises that universities are autonomous institutions but we are also strongly committed to protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom at our universities,” he said.

Human Rights Watch has called on universities worldwide to resist Beijing’s efforts to undermine academic freedom overseas and called on them to adopt a 12-point code of conduct to respond to threats against students, scholars and colleges. Ms Pearson said HRW had received no firm commitments from Australian universities about signing up to the code.

Australian universities have become heavily reliant on student fees from Chinese students, which make up about a quarter of UNSW’s 60,000 students.

Canberra is pressing universities to implement a new code of conduct, which commits them to protecting “free speech and academic freedom”.

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