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Espionage in the lecture hall or bewildered students?

HONG KONG (SE): The machinations of the United Work Front Department outside of China and meddling in local affairs by Beijing are currently being criticised at both a high level and with great seriousness in Australia.
Speaking at a Confucius Institute in Adelaide in October, the country’s top ranking diplomat, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, warned international students that freedom of speech is a highly treasured Australian value and that they are not invited to interfere in that.
Adamson’s chide was then taken up by the minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on October 16 that she gave a straight out warning to foreign students that their associations with the Communist Party are not to be used to disrupt freedom of speech.
She stated bluntly that there is now a like-mindedness and shared understanding among what is referred to as the Five Eyes, a cooperative arrangement among the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia to find a collective strategy to counteract Chinese government intrusion into western universities.
However, these two are not the only ones firing bullets at Beijing over the behaviour of the Chinese in the country. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) also warned in October that it is time for the Australian government to insist that Chinese comply with Australia’s values and interests.
When questioned on the issue, the United Front executive vice-minister, Zhang Yijiong, was evasive, simply saying that students should respect culture, history and the way of life of foreign countries.
“We ask Chinese overseas students to respect the law and regulations of receiving countries. They have been playing an important role in promoting exchanges between China and foreign countries,” he said.
However, Zhang stressed that as sons and daughters of China, it is essential that they understand the value and importance of the Communist Party to the well-being of the Middle Kingdom.
While not denying the fine sound of his words, both Adamson and Bishop, as well as the powers-that-be in ASIO beg to differ somewhat. Bishop stated flatly, “This country prides itself in its values and openness and upholding freedom of speech… That’s who we are. And they should abide by it.”
While Bishop’s description of her nation may ring as sweetly as Zhang’s of his, they may well be equally as evasive and misleading.
Free speech in Australia has taken a lot of dents over the past few months, as the debate over same-sex marriage has revealed the difficulty the nation is having conducting a civilised discussion on the emotive issue.
It has been characterised by profanity, blasphemy, character assignation, demonisation of personalities, professional censure and penalty, even violence by people on both the pro and con sides of the issue.
The experience of many Chinese students studying in the country is not dissimilar, as from their perspective they find it extremely difficult to discover a platform where they are free to express their own views about things like the Communist Party without being laughed out of town and told they have been brainwashed.
Merriden Varrall notes in a report published by the Lowry Institute in Australia that one student, who received a low mark for an essay on the great contribution the Communist Party has made in China, said that he was told it is impossible to concoct a compelling thesis on the matter.
Varrall points out, “Despite being told that all views are welcome, pro-party views are understood to be the exception.”
While Varrall acknowledges that there are plenty of examples of Chinese students acting in a disruptive manner, threatening lecturers over language used about Taiwan and harassing shop owners who allow the Falun Gong publication, The Epoch Times, to be distributed from their premises, she says there can be more behind their behaviour than the wish to disrupt.
And while there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of Chinese students literally picking up piles of the papers and throwing them out onto the street, there is little research showing how widespread or exceptional that may be.
She maintains that Chinese students do face many hurdles in settling into Australian life and much more could be done locally to assist them to adjust.
High on the list of difficulties faced is the alien nature of many of the concepts students from democratic countries possess that the Chinese have had no exposure to or experience of. This creates an immediate communication problem with both their peers and teachers.
Another is language ability, as even those who have legitimately qualified in English tests still have problems with spoken English and Aussie English is an added extra to overcome in the linguistic stakes.
Varrall quotes one student as saying that he only understands about half of what is said in tutorials and even when he does, he does not feel free to say what he really thinks.
While Australia has two main objectives in inviting foreign students and an increasingly important one is that they are a big money-spinner, the arguably more important ideal is to give them an exposure to a way of life that is different, legitimate and life-giving.
In this context it is not sufficient to dump them into the ring and expect them to pick up on a vast array of basic concepts and images by osmosis, as much more could be done in orienting them into a more relaxed way of prospering and thriving in their new-found, but extremely foreign environment.
The good old Aussie wisdom of “she’ll be right mate” may simply not be sufficient.
But the growing influence of Chinese soft power is indeed a real issue in the country, with organisations like the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification highly active in lobbying politicians from all persuasions to push the Chinese agenda on many issues, including promoting its view on the suppression of Tibet.
While Zhang’s admonition to Chinese living abroad to keep the law may be irrelevant, as such activity is currently not illegal, he may be well advised to reissue the warning, as this appears likely to change in the near future.
Students may not be the prime mover in the manipulation of the country’s universities, but powerful media and business interests certainly are, and concerns expressed by three of the nation’s top security advisers are not likely to be expiated by Zhang’s pious platitudes.
He may need to begin applying China’s oft’ repeated mantra to other countries to stop meddling in its internal affairs to his own citizens living overseas, or it could well come back to bite him as others move against his own country’s meddling in their internal affairs.
But simply dumping all students into the same category without paying attention to the reasons underlying their seeming recalcitrant behaviour or guiding them towards using the opportunity of studying in a foreign environment constructively for the benefit of both their own and the host country, may well be churlish, as bewilderment at the belittling of a lifetime of learning can prompt uncouth behaviour in the lecture hall as much as espionage can.

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