A fortnight ago, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced in a speech to the National Press Club that his department – in cooperation with the departments of Defence, Home Affairs and the attorney-general, as well as intelligence agencies such as ASIO and university heads – would establish a ‘university foreign interference taskforce’.
Tehan was appointed to his ministerial post under Scott Morrison and has since parroted every right-wing talking point regarding higher education. To Tehan, institutions of higher education are not simply universities but ‘taxpayer-funded universities’ – as though they should be anything else?
Tehan also launched the French Review into freedom of speech on campus, joining the chorus of conservative and far-right commentators, both in Australia and abroad, decrying the destruction of the right to freedom of speech by … protesters exercising their right to free speech. Tehan had even gone as far as to suggest that protesters should be charged for the extra security that a university provides when on-campus protests are staged. So much for ‘free’ speech. Despite the review finding that there was no evidence to substantiate claims that there is a ‘crisis’ of freedom of speech on campus, Tehan still used his August Press Club speech to call for universities to adopt a code protecting freedom of speech.
Given Tehan’s predictable ministerial track record, it should come as no surprise that his department would propose a foreign interference taskforce. Although he assures us that the taskforce won’t have a veto over university decisions over research and collaboration with ‘foreign entities’, one of the five foundational principles upon which it is to be established is that ‘[research], collaboration and education activities will support the national interest.’
The political background against which all of this takes place is a rising anti-Chinese hysteria both on and off campuses and it’s clear that Chinese scholars and researchers are the target of Tehan’s taskforce.
Last year, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) representing academic and professional university staff signed an open letter opposing a suite of anti–‘foreign influence’ laws. The union noted that these laws threatened not only civil liberties but also intellectual freedom and that scholars of China could come under attack due to the heightened debate around Chinese influence. University of Sydney academic David Brophy said at the time:
The idea that Australia’s sovereignty is threatened by a vast Chinese conspiracy has been a popular talking point in the debate around these new laws. We didn’t want parliament to debate the laws without knowing that many of Australia’s China experts reject this narrative. More than that, they see it as divisive and dangerous.
Since then, anti-Chinese fear-mongering both on and off university campuses has increased. Since last year, we’ve seen former NSW Labor leader Michael Daley claiming Asians with PhDs were ‘moving in and taking [the] jobs’ of ‘our young children’. Last month saw an anti-Chinese demonstration at the University of Queensland where a far-right personality was due to speak before he was hastily disinvited. This month saw the Labor-led campaign against Liberal MP Gladys Liu over her past links to organisations associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In one of the most egregious expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment on campus, just last week, Monash Caulfield student union representatives passed a regulation mandating that, to run in student elections, a candidate has to be eligible to work twenty-two hours per week or more – effectively banning international students who make up a majority of that campus, many of whom are Chinese.
This rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment has not gone unchallenged. The NTEU, as well as student socialist and Greens clubs, have come out against it and called it out for what it is: racism. However, those advancing anti-Chinese views have been quick to refute the racism charge and insist they’re concerned about the influence of the CCP.
For example, liberal public intellectual and former Greens candidate Clive Hamilton called those socialist and Greens clubs ‘useful idiots’ of the CCP and said anti-racist activists were ‘engaged in a kind of performative wokeness’.
‘It’s, ‘I’m more anti-racist than you are, I’m so anti-racist I’m going to defend a communist party organisation on campus because it’s Chinese and I’m appalled at Australia’s history of anti-China racism,’ Hamilton said, clumsily yet deliberately equating anti-racism with support for the CCP.
Hamilton, it’s worth noting, has been campaigning for some time now against supposed Chinese influence in Australia. His 2018 book, The Silent Invasion. produced swift rebuke from Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who noted that the language Hamilton used – such as ‘panda huggers’, and including the book’s very title – ‘flirts with exciting an anti-Chinese or Sinophobic racial sentiment.’ Similar to the attacks on Liu, such talk portrays Chinese nationals as a disloyal fifth column, warranting suspicion and prejudice.
Yet for all this talk of foreign influence on Australian campuses, how vocal have this motley crew of Liberal ministers, Labor MPs and students, and failed Greens candidates been in other instances of foreign influence?
When the Israeli law firm Shurat HaDin – notorious for its practice of ‘lawfare’, which consists in suing groups or individuals who speak out against the Israeli state – went after University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch for his position supporting the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, did the Liberal Party take a principled stance against this blatant attack on academic freedom? Quite the opposite: then–shadow foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop advanced a policy that would have seen any academic or institution speaking out in favour of BDS lose their federal funding.
And what about the presence of foreign arms manufacturers such as the British BAE Systems or US Lockheed Martin in universities across the country? These foreign entities have official partnerships with universities, and in particular their engineering departments, and the weapons they develop have been used by states committing human rights violations and war crimes. For example, BAE Systems has a £4.4 billion contract to supply Saudi Arabia with seventy-two fighter jets. These jets have been used in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen, which the United Nations and human rights organisations have labelled the largest humanitarian catastrophe of our time.
One might think the presence of a foreign entity implicated in war crimes might raise eyebrows for the likes of Tehan, Hamilton and university vice chancellors. The opposite is true. Last year, the University of Adelaide’s vice chancellor, Peter Rathjen, announced in a press release that he was ‘proud to build on its outstanding defence track record in partnership with BAE Systems’ and that the arms company’s investment of $10 million into select University of Adelaide courses ‘will be a winning initiative for STEM students’.
There is no doubt that the Chinese state is an authoritarian one. Its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities such as Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and its readiness to crush any dissent or rebellion – such as labour struggles on the mainland or the democratic movement taking place in Hong Kong currently – are well noted. However, the campaign against supposed Chinese influence on university campuses is a treacherous path to tread. It is possible to stand against the Chinese state’s human rights abuses without amplifying the anti-Chinese racism broadcast by conservative and liberal commentators alike. It is possible to express solidarity with Hong Kongers, Uighurs and Chinese workers and students fighting for their economic and political rights without breeding prejudice and suspicion of every Chinese national and institution on campus. Indeed, it’s not only possible: standing up to racism is a vital necessity.
Tehan’s taskforce has gone relatively unnoticed in the mainstream press, yet it’s imperative that progressives on campus oppose such moves to impose more government scrutiny on academics and their conduct – particularly one that so deliberately fans the flames of anti-Chinese racism.