Christy Leung is a 21-year-old college student from Hong Kong. She feels threatened by Chinese censorship these days — but she doesn’t even live in Hong Kong right now. Instead, she attends the University of Queensland in Australia.
Recently, when she and other students from Hong Kong organized a peaceful rally on campus to support the anti-extradition bill protesters in Hong Kong, they were met by a pro-Beijing counterprotest. A video shows some of the Chinese nationalists resorted to physical violence in order to shut down students from Hong Kong. According to a New York Times report, “A student from Hong Kong [was] being grabbed by the throat,” and a “counter protester [threw] a Hong Kong student’s megaphone aside.”
Similar confrontations between Hong Kong students and pro-Beijing Chinese nationalists (including students and nonstudents) occurred at the University of Auckland in New Zealand this week. A Chinese male student shoved Sarah Lee, a female student from Hong Kong, causing her to fall to the ground.
Few of us could have ever imagined that a student’s right to free speech would be violently challenged in this way on college campuses in Western democracies such as Australia and New Zealand. Yet these recent incidents are a chilling reminder of the long arms of Chinese censorship and its effects on Western education institutions. College campuses unfortunately have become the new battlefront.
Hubris: China Tries to Control Non-Chinese Speech
The Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, a propaganda arm of the Communist Party, is known to take advantage of the academic freedom in overseas education institutions to shape favorable narratives of China and suppress any unfavorable views. It carries out its censorship effort in several ways: establishing Confucius Institutes, suppressing campus activities the Chinese government doesn’t like, manipulating or intimidating professors and scholars, and manipulating or intimidating Chinese students.
Confucius Institutes are the United Front’s most known overseas outreach program. The Chinese government fully funds and manages these on-campus centers, including supplying teachers and teaching materials with the stated goal of promoting Chinese language and culture. But in the words of the Minister of Propaganda Liu Yunshan in 2010: “With regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong. Our strategy is to proactively take our culture abroad. … We should do well in establishing overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”
Since launching in 2004, the Confucius Institute has quickly expanded its worldwide presence. As of 2016, there are more than 480 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents. The United Front’s stated goal is to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes worldwide by 2020.
As the number of overseas Confucius Institute locations expands, so do the complaints against it. Most critics focus on how these institutes are managed and the restrictions they put on academic freedom and free speech.
Threatening the Freedoms to Think and Speak
In 2014, the European Association for Chinese Studies reported its conference materials were confiscated and censored at a Confucius Institute-sponsored conference in Europe. In the same year, the American Association of University Professors stated, “Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”
Australian media recently confirmed the AAUP’s report. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age obtained the 11 contracts signed between Australian universities and the Chinese government on Confucius Institutes. While some universities spelled out how they wanted to safeguard academic freedom, a few others accepted the Chinese government’s authority over teaching at these on-campus centers, which means China can dictate the teaching materials on subjects as sensitive as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, even dictating that it won’t be taught.
Recognizing the threats to academic freedom these Confucius Institutes pose, at least 15 American colleges and universities closed CIs on their campuses in the last year and a half. Close to 100 Confucius Institutes still reside on American college campuses, however, and many more CI programs are embedded in American K-12 schools.
Besides using CIs to control the narratives about China, the Chinese government can also count on both Chinese and foreign scholars’ self-censorship. Inside Higher Ed reports that “Chinese scholars who speak out against the party line are subject to harassment and imprisonment. American scholars who research China also have to monitor what they say and write or risk being barred from researching in China.” Therefore, many professors and scholars choose their research topics carefully and stay away from sensitive subjects to stay on the “good” side of the Chinese government.
For those who dare to push the limits, not only can China deny their visa requests, but Chinese agents may also harass the dissidents in their own backyards. New Zealand professor Anne-Marie Brady, who wrote about China’s foreign influence, had to seek government security protection in 2018 after suffering a yearlong harassment campaign by Chinese agents.
Then There’s China’s Direct Interference
When self-censorship isn’t enough, Chinese diplomats sometimes interfere directly with activities they disapprove of on college campuses. New Zealand’s Auckland University canceled the screening of a documentary that explores the controversies surrounding the Confucius Institute in 2018, as well as an event to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 2019 following Chinese diplomats’ requests.
More often than not, Chinese diplomats don’t interfere directly but operate behind the scenes through Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, or CSSAs, on college campuses to get their messages across. For example, in 2017, the CSSA of the University of California at San Diego objected to the Dalai Lama delivering the commencement speech. It rested its objection on the Chinese government’s official line that the Dalai Lama is a separatist and is behind violence in Tibet (while many Tibetans view Beijing as the oppressor). USA Today reported that “the CSSA has ties with the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles to promote ‘news and messages from the government to our members.’“
After a recent confrontation between pro-Beijing Chinese nationals (including students and nonstudents) and pro-Hong Kong students at the University of Queensland in Australia, The New York Times reported that a diplomat from the Chinese Consulate in Brisbane, Australia, “praised the ‘spontaneous patriotic behavior’ of the pro-China activists — leading the Australian defense minister to take the extraordinary step of warning foreign diplomats against attempts to suppress free speech.”
It’s important to point out that not all Chinese students and scholars support Beijing’s policies and rhetoric. Many remain silent either out of fear of retribution against them or their families, or just the desire to remain apolitical. For those who have the courage to speak out, Beijing always finds a way to shut them down.
Kevin Carrico, a college lecturer in Australia, recalled two Chinese students telling him that “things they said in his classroom about sensitive subjects somehow made their way to their parents back home,” and supervisors in China had told the parents to make sure their children behave more “appropriately” overseas.
No Escape from Chinese Intimidation Tactics
Early this year, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars in the U.S. said “it was ‘deeply concerned’ about reports that have emerged from universities in the United States, Canada, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands of the coordinated targeting of activists campaigning against China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.” This is unfortunately the reality overseas Chinese have to face. No matter where they are, those Chinese students and immigrants who disagree with the Chinese government seem unable to escape Beijing’s censorship and intimidation.
Due to their close economic ties with China and large Chinese immigrant populations in their countries, Australia and New Zealand have probably experienced most of China’s interference. What’s occurring on college campuses represents only a small piece of China’s overall strategy of expanding its overseas influence. And the expansion of overseas influence plays an integral part in China’s foreign policy. Australia finally responded by passing an anti-foreign interference law last year, which many view as aimed directly at China.
What’s happening on college campuses in Australia and New Zealand is starting to pop up in the United States as well. The U.S. government needs to learn from Australia and New Zealand’s experiences, understand the Chinese Communist Party’s methods and goals of overseas influence, and formulate an effective strategic response. The United States can’t afford to wait because college campuses have become the new battlefront to fight off Chinese censorship.