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University peak body unsure which countries are a foreign interference risk

“Despite the Chinese government in Beijing being thousands of kilometres away, many Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia say that they alter their behaviour and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from fellow classmates and being reported on by them to authorities back home,” Ms McNeill told the inquiry.

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But Ms Jackson’s evidence highlights the confusion in the university sector about which countries, other than China, are on the radar of Australia’s security agencies as the federal government bolsters its response to potential academic espionage and research theft. As part of this, UFIT is drafting new guidelines, due to be finalised by the end of the month, which include measures such as training staff and students how to identify and report foreign interference risks.

The drafting process has been complicated by the federal government’s policy of country-agnosticism on matters of foreign interference, which means it does not explicitly name the countries of most concern. University chiefs, for example, are fiercely resisting a proposal in the draft guidelines to force academics to reveal any overseas political memberships – a move that could cover tens of thousands of academics and apply equally to members of the US Democratic Party and the Chinese Communist Party.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess warned earlier this year the scale of foreign interference in universities was higher than at any time since the Cold War, saying it was conducted by “more than one country [but] one country in particular is highly active”.

While the draft guidelines do not specifically name China or the CCP, Department of Education senior official Karen Sandercock, also a member of the UFIT, confirmed some measures had been informed by the Human Rights Watch report.

“We’re looking in much more concrete terms at what measures can be taken to prevent harassment and intimidation, and to give both students and staff mechanisms to report those incidents. So there has been quite a shift in emphasis over the last couple of years since we first worked on the guidelines,” Ms Sandercock said.

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Labor backbencher Julian Hill, referring to an opinion piece by Australian-Khmer lawyer Sawathey Ek, questioned department officials about whether there were concerns about Cambodia and other illiberal countries such as Saudi Arabia exerting influence over diaspora communities.

“It’d be very helpful to us as parliamentarians to be able to get some guidance from your precise intelligence from the sector about what other diaspora communities may be under threat or where there may be issues,” Mr Hill said.

Ms Sandercock said the department was not aware of specific concerns about alleged misuse of Australian government scholarship programs by foreign governments.

Mr Ek wrote that since 2016 he had witnessed the influence of the Cambodian People’s Party, led by President Hun Sen, engage in a mass recruitment drive of students and community members in Sydney.

“Hun Sen’s network has been able to divide and disrupt our community harmony without scrutiny by the media or the government. Many students were recruited before they left Cambodia to study in Australia. In 2016, there was a mass recruitment drive involving at least 600 people in Sydney,” he wrote.

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