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Chinese students see political motive in Beijing’s call to stay away

Now she has warmer feelings about Australians but thinks they are still worlds apart in some ways.

“Personally I think they’re really friendly, though, to be honest, I think they are quite different,” she said. “It’s like we have different logic.”

China’s Ministry of Education this week cautioned Chinese citizens against travelling to Australia to study, citing a rise in racist incidents since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

China is the largest source of overseas students at Australian universities. Any decline would put at risk an estimated $3.1 billion in revenue collected from Chinese nationals attending the Group of Eight elite research universities, along with RMIT and the University of Technology Sydney.

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Ms Kuang knows there are Australians with racist attitudes towards Chinese people.

She suspects she had a small taste of it on a recent visit to Bunnings, when an older white man told her to keep her distance.

But she also sees geopolitics at play as the diplomatic relationship between the two countries worsens.

“This is a policy issue, not a public issue,” she said.

Ms Kuang is one of 50 women who took part in a five-year study of Chinese students’ wellbeing in Australia, published this week.

The study, by associate professor Fran Martin of the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication, found racism was just one of several vulnerabilities Chinese students experienced in Australia.

Others included exploitation in rental accommodation and employment, often by members of the Chinese diaspora, social exclusion and a lack of opportunities to mix outside international student circles.

Professor Martin said Chinese students frequently chose Australian universities because of the perception that life here was more relaxed and safer than other western options.

Education agents use the perception Australian cities have clean air and lack gun violence in their sales pitches.

“It’s seen as a safe choice,” she said. “Despite attacks on Indian students [10 years ago], the brand is about safety and being clean and green.”

Exclusion, not violence, was the main form of racism students were likely to experience.

‘Despite attacks on Indian students [10 years ago], the brand is about safety and being clean and green.’

Associate professor Fran Martin, University of Melbourne

Many students leave disappointed “by the difficulty of getting out of that expatriate bubble,” Professor Martin said.

Parents in China with children who were weighing up where to study overseas would likely give weight to Beijing’s advice, Professor Martin said.

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But Salvatore Babones, adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and associate professor at the University of Sydney, said those students already here would be more likely to see the geopolitical context of China’s warning.

“Chinese students yawned,” he said. “They are wise to Chinese government propaganda.”

Professor Babones said the warnings from Beijing were only meaningful as the latest step in a process by which the Chinese government was pushing to get its citizens into studying domestically rather than going overseas.

He said the next step could be a ban on students starting degrees in other countries.

“When that announcement comes out, then everybody should panic.”

Jeremy (surname withheld), who is a law student at the University of Sydney, said he is against the idea of Chinese education agents threatening to divert international students away from Australia to the UK.

Jeremy is a law student at the University of Sydney.

Jeremy is a law student at the University of Sydney.Credit:Janie Barrett

“As far as I understand, that recommendation is coming because of claims Australia is a racist place,” he said.

“The grounds for that is baseless, in my opinion.”

Jeremy, 24, said his experiences since he arrived in Sydney had been positive, but some around him supported the suggestion from the agents.

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“I personally have not experienced any racist attacks. I think Australia is safe to study and I don’t personally agree with them,” he said.

“I can’t speak for all of them, but some of my friends think it’s an appropriate action for them to do so.”

Fiona Li, another Melbourne-based Chinese university student who took part in the study, said China was trying to put pressure on Australia, by threatening its multibillion-dollar international education industry.

“The Australian government wanted to open an investigation of the coronavirus. I think that was the reason, putting some pressure on the Australian government,” Ms Li said.

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