Can China’s cash buy Australia’s academic freedom?

Kyinzom Dhongdue protesting at the university

The University of Sydney was recently accused of withdrawing its support to host the Dalai Lama on campus in order to protect financial ties with China. Although the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) will now host a lecture on campus in June, critics argue that this incident reveals a larger pattern of pressure exerted on Australian universities by the Chinese government. Daniela Carlucci investigates.

Kyinzom Dhongdue is a Tibetan refugee. Born in a Tibetan refugee settlement in south India, her family was one of the many that fled into exile after 1959. As a child, she attended the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala where the Tibetan government in exile is based. She later studied English literature and journalism in Delhi. In 2006, she moved to Australia and now works for the Australia Tibet Council (ATC), campaigning for the human rights and democratic freedoms of the Tibetan people.

As communications and government relations manager, Kyinzom is responsible for organising Tibet Talks which bring together visiting and local activists, academics and political leaders to discuss Tibetan issues. Following the incident at the University of Sydney, the ATC held a panel discussion to address growing concerns about China’s influence on Australian universities. Sources say that similar incidents have occurred at the University of Western Sydney, University of Melbourne, University of Tasmania and Southern Cross University.

Australia Tibet Council’s Kyinzom Dhongdue at home

But why are Australia’s universities bowing to pressure from China? The short answer is money.

Education is Australia’s fourth largest export, earning $15 billion in 2012. China is by far the largest source country for international university students, with Chinese students accounting for 40.8 per cent of all higher education enrolments last year. In fact, the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) enrolment inquiries dropped significantly when the Chinese government blocked access to their website because of references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong in 2005. The block only came down after UTS removed all references to Falun Gong from its website.

Dr Anna Alomes resigned from her tenured position as the Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Tasmania following an almost identical incident in 2009. She says that “direct threats were made to impact the financial bottom line of the University” during a visit from representatives of the Chinese government.

But having worked as an advocate for Tibet for many years, ATC director Dr Simon Bradshaw believes China’s influence is often more subtle.

“I think our perception when something like this happens is that Chinese officials come knocking on the door and give somebody a dressing down. Sometimes I’m sure that happens, but […] often universities and other institutions make these decisions of their own volition because of perceived consequences […] often they don’t even have to come knocking, unfortunately.”

Then there are the controversial Confucius Institutes, which are strategically located at leading universities around the world. Partly funded and closely managed by the Chinese government, their mission is to promote Chinese language and culture. The only catch—no talk of Tibet (or any other topics that might embarrass the Chinese government for that matter).

Not surprisingly, the Confucius Institutes have received backlash from many Western academics. In 2008, former diplomat and visiting professor at the University of Sydney, Jocelyn Chey, warned that the Chinese government’s involvement in teaching and research is a direct threat to academic freedom and independence.

Last August, for example, the University of Sydney’s Confucius Institute was attacked for presenting a lecture on Tibet by a Chinese academic critical of the Dalai Lama. But Kyinzom says the Chinese government often sends “Tibetologists” into Western universities to spread Chinese propaganda.

“It was pretty disturbing to see how China presents information on Tibet. These so-called ‘Tibet experts,’ they are not really experts in the very open, true sense of the word. They are here to serve the party, to serve the party line,” she says.

But money isn’t the only thing keeping Australian universities tight-lipped.

Master of Human Rights student Sophie Bouris, who was instrumental in breaking the story at the University of Sydney, believes visas also play a role.

“This issue of visas is almost as big in the university as is the cash because if you’ve got all these research projects going on in China and you can’t get a visa to go do it, then that’s another really important issue,” she said at the panel discussion organised by the ATC.

Suddenly, it all makes sense. When ABC 7.30 revealed the email from Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence to IDHR director John Keane which thanked him for acting “in the best interests of researchers across the University,” many within the university community were confused. It now seems clear what the Vice-Chancellor was referring to.

Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence and Nanjing Agricultural University Professor Ding Yanfeng signing the memorandum of understanding for the new Centre for Carbon, Water and Food. Courtesy: University of Sydney.

Furthermore, since the incident many have been pointing to the University of Sydney’s links to China, particularly Dr Spence’s recent trip to Hainan for the Bo’ao Forum with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Not to mention the University of Sydney’s new $20 million Centre for Carbon, Water and Food, funded by the federal government and the university, with mirror facilities in Beijing and Nanjing.

Yet, while it’s clear that both the Australian government and universities are interested in strengthening their ties with China, critics are sceptical about the supposed consequences of offending their largest trading partner.

“China is doing trade with Australia because China is benefitting. Regardless of universities hosting the Dalai Lama or not, regardless of the government talking about human rights and the situation in Tibet, China will still continue to trade. The Chinese are that practical,” Kyinzom says.

Speaking from her experience at the University of Tasmania, Dr Alomes says she believes universities ought not to give in to coercion and bullying.

“What I discovered was that if you deny the legitimacy of the bullying, tell them directly that it is unacceptable and just will not work, after being astonished, they simply walk away. There are no repercussions. Intimidation only works if you buy into it,” she says.

But in light of the government’s National Education Reform Agreement that would cut over $2 billion in funding from Australian universities, one has to wonder where the money will come from in future.

At the University of Sydney, the dust is yet to settle. Students and staff have recently created a petition calling for a senate inquiry into management’s handling of the Dalai Lama’s visit. Will the university oblige? For now, it has said there is no need to conduct an inquiry since the lecture is going ahead as intended. But perhaps with enough signatures it will have a change of heart. It wouldn’t be the first time.