It happened again. On 31st July, the University of NSW tweeted an article which quoted Human Rights Watch's Australia director and adjunct law lecturer, Elaine Pearson, expressing her concerns over the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong.
The tweet quickly provoked an online protest from Chinese Communist Party supporters. After an apparent barrage from its Chinese students, the university removed the tweet and deleted the article from its official website. Not surprisingly, it plunged the university into greater controversy. A flurry of bipartisan criticism from federal MPs and senators accused the UNSW of not defending academic freedom. The article has since been restored.
Later, the university issued two statements respectively apologising to UNSW staff and Chinese students and alumni, with one from VC Ian Jacobs, acknowledging the deleting of the original tweet as a mistake, and another from UNSW Global chief executive Laurie Pearcey, claiming the tweet was removed by the school due to its misleading content.
It is not the first time that universities found themselves mired in such an uncomfortable situation. Early in 2016, the University of Sydney faced two opposing waves of petitions over controversial comments by a Business School tutor on China and Chinese students, and ended up with the tutor voluntarily resigning.
Late last year, at the height of anti-extradition bill protests, Australia's universities almost become an overseas battlefield between pro-democracy and pro-China demonstrators. Such predicaments are not limited to Australia.
In 2017, an invitation to the Dalai Lama, deemed a separatist by Beijing, to speak at the University of California's commencement ceremony sparked uproar among its Chinese students who saw the decision as an affront. Similar controversies broke out at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium when the university issued invitations to Hong Kong activists Nathan Law and Joshua Wang.
Every event follows the same script. The angry responses from Chinese students and their demand for an apology are seen as attempts of censorship, thereby a threat to Australia's academic freedom. Clive Hamilton, author of a controversial book titled Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia, alleges that the Chinese consulate encourages and guides student actions behind the scenes. In the UNSW case, the link between campaign organiser, Sydney-based lawyer Huang Yuwen, and the Chinese consulate seemed to reconfirm this conjecture and cater to the current political worries about China's penetration in Australian universities.
On the other side, the same story has been woven into a parallel narrative. On 3rd August, Guancha.cn, a popular nationalist tabloid in China, reported that students from UNSW "politely voiced a boycott to the school", and compared this incident with UNSW's welcome to international students in early July. The following day, the Communist Youth League of China published an article on its official WeChat account titled A seek of death! The "two faces" of the University of New South Wales in Australia angering Chinese students. The article, which attracted more than 100,000 views (the maximum number of views counted by WeChat), opines that public opposition against the Chinese government on sensitive issues is undoubtedly a great insult to Chinese students, thus being extremely disrespectful to their feelings.
This nationalistic narrative emphasises the spontaneity of Chinese students, implying that their position is exactly the same as that of the CCP. This assumption seems to have been confirmed in a vote initiated by Australia Today, the largest Chinese platform in Australia. In this online vote called 'Do you support UNSW's backing of "Free Hong Kong" movement', only 14 per cent of respondents chose yes, while 86 per cent expressed their objection. Although this is not a well-designed question, as UNSW repeatedly stated, that the article only represents a view of the individual instead of the UNSW itself, such an interpretation undoubtedly reflects the students' perception in the matter.
Both parties benefit from these two sets of opposing narratives, Australian federal MPs demonstrated strong determination in defending the freedom of speech in Australia, while the Communist Party once again got the opportunity to publicise the sinister foreign enemies and arouse the patriotism of its people. While promoting the agenda of both sides, the problem remains unsolved.
Indeed, as the Minister of Education Dan Tehan states, "freedom of speech is a pillar of our democracy", and can never be overemphasised. John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous defenders of freedom of speech, eloquently explained its instrumental value to society since the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.
However, the protection of freedom of speech, as we can see on university campuses is rather superficial. The two sets of narratives mentioned above run in their respective fields in parallel to obtain political capital without any productive contacts or dialogues. Chinese students, a major actor in these events, are either regarded as fund providers that must be pleased, or as troublemakers that are brainwashed by the CCP. Universities, on the front line of controversy, failed not only in defending their academic independence and dignity but also in maintaining a healthy, safe and free platform for the competition of ideas. It is certainly challenging.
As Elaine Pearson points out in her recent article, speech on sensitive political affairs may cause troubles for Chinese dissidents or their families. However, it is not an excuse for the university to not make any efforts in this regard. For example, instead of merely deleting the tweet, UNSW could have posted a rebuttal article from those who disagree and started a constructive conversation on the premise of protecting the students' identity. In doing so, it might have also saved itself from the current embarrassing damage control.
The current predicament of Australian universities is, to some extent, a microcosm of the dilemma facing Australia. The increasingly complex international relations indisputably require a firm defence of the values we cherish, but also more delicate and practical thinking through the lens of politics and policy.
Bingqing Yang is a recent graduate from the University of Melbourne, who majored in the Master of International Relations.
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