Academics also testified about in-class surveillance, with one describing how the parents of a Chinese student in his class were contacted by Chinese authorities in 2017 after the student gave a presentation on self-immolation in Tibet.
“There’s no other way for her parents to have learned about that other than a reporting mechanism. I would have liked to get to the bottom of how this happened but in a class of 80 or 90 students, it’s hopeless,” the academic said.
Other academics, who were interviewed because of their expertise in China studies, said a rising nationalism among Chinese students since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 had made it difficult to teach about politically sensitive issues such as Taiwan.
“Whole areas are becoming off-limits,” one academic said. “Even saying that Taiwan could be a political entity was enough for some Chinese students to lodge complaints against the lecturer for inviting the guest [speaker].”
Said another academic: “The universities are behind the curve on all of this. There is not a strategy for dealing with it.”
The report will fuel concerns within the government that the sector is too reliant on the Chinese student market, which generated a significant slice of the $10 billion in international student fees collected by universities in 2019.
The report also includes accounts of surveillance and harassment of students by Chinese authorities beyond university bounds. Adam, a student from the persecuted Muslim Uighur minority in northwest China, said he was forced to move interstate to an area where there was no Uighur community in a bid to avoid pressure by Chinese police to spy on the groups.
“They said they would pay for my Australian studies if I spied. They said I only have to go to the events; I just have to take videos of who joined the events. Adelaide and Melbourne Uighur events. Visit the families and provide their addresses, car registration, what kind of car they drive and what kind of job they do. It would be in my best interest, they said,” Adam said.
He said he attempted to report the coercion and threats to the Australian Federal Police after Chinese authorities questioned his mother at a police station after he attended a democracy rally.
“I thought they might have some kind of department or service that could help me. But when I called them, they said so what, that was their attitude,” he said.
“And when I told him they have my mum sitting next to them and they’re threatening me, he said he can’t do anything about it.”
The AFP said it was unable to confirm Adam’s account.
The report’s author, Sophie McNeill, said many of the students interviewed also did not bother reporting their experiences of harassment and surveillance to their universities, believing the administration was more concerned about protecting its financial reliance on the broader Chinese student market.
“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” Ms McNeill said. “The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said every university leader would be “sobered and concerned” by the report. But she stressed universities already had long-established policies to deal with coercion and intimidation on campuses and urged students and staff to report incidents.
”I don’t see any evidence at all that Australian universities have been anything less than absolutely on the front food about protecting students when and where we can,” Ms Jackson said.
The report does not identify which specific universities the students and academics attended, but the interviewees were sourced from 16 institutions, including: University of NSW, University of Technology Sydney, Macquarie University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, La Trobe University and RMIT.
The Chinese embassy was contacted for comment.
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