Beijing not strangling research in Australia

But new measures are needed to ensure this continues

Diarmuid O’Donoghue, PhD Candidate Monash University

Australian universities are increasing their economic reliance on China. There are risks that academics self-censor to maintain visa access and universities censor sensitive research to keep the rivers of gold flowing. However, academic discussion on issues such as the Xinjiang re-education camps, CCP influence, and the Hong Kong protests is flourishing in Australian universities. Yet this does not mean that it is inevitable that this space will be protected into the future. Universities, funding bodies and governments must ensure that China-topics are not off-limits in Australian universities.


Academic debate and research is healthy in Australia

The CCP is hostile to academic freedom and seeks to restrict global research into topics such as democracy, human rights and the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. In the controversial book Silent Invasion, Clive Hamilton claims that Beijing is successful in pressuring Australian universities and academics to censor and avoid sensitive research topics. This is to stay on the right side of the CCP. However, this is not the reality. Research and teaching continues in Australian universities on a wide range of sensitive issues.

Australian universities are contributing to global discussions on issues that the CCP would like silenced. Brief examples include:

  • At Latrobe University, James Leibold is leading an investigation into CCP policy, ethnic affairs and repression in Tibet and Xinjiang;

  • At Sydney University, David Brophy is continuing research into the social and political history of the Xinjiang region;

  • At Monash University, Kevin Carrico is undertaking research into nationalism and the Hong Kong independence movement;

  • At the University of Technology Sydney, Feng Chongyi is undertaking research into Chinese political thought and united front work.

Creeping censorship issues globally

There are no guarantees that the current research on China will continue into the future. Globally, there are concerns that censorship and self-censorship is creeping into China studies research.

James Leibold encountered research problems when two European academics no longer wanted to publish journal articles on the Belt and Road Initiative’s impact on ethnic minorities in China. They feared that they would lose visa access to China.

Junior academics and those without secure working conditions may be avoiding sensitive topics such as human rights topics. Two global studies found that supervisors and funding bodies have discouraged post-graduate students and junior faculty from undertaking sensitive research topics because they may be blacklisted or lose access to Chinese markets.

Policy recommendations

The following recommendations aim to ensure that Australian universities do not engage in censorship and undertake free and open research.

  1. Academics and universities should create a list of priority topics in China studies across research disciplines that require designated funding.

    The Australian Research Council, government grants and university funding must support sensitive research topics that the CCP is seeking to silence. These topics may include the re-education camps in Xinjiang, human rights and the Hong Kong protests. This is important as economic reliance grows on China and pressure will come to avoid topics that may offend the CCP.

  2. Australian universities should be willing to sponsor and host dissident scholars and academics who are no longer able to work and/or are in danger in China and Hong Kong and other authoritarian states.

    Currently, only six Australian universities are members of the global Scholars at Risk network. This member network invites threatened scholars to work and visit their institutions. More Australian universities should become members and signal their willingness to play a stronger role in assisting scholars under threat. Australian governments should provide financial assistance and incentives to universities who join and host these scholars.

  3. Australian universities should promote reforms to global university rankings to include protections for academic freedom.

    Chinese and other authoritarian states’ universities are rising in global academic rankings. However, these rankings ignore the restrictions on academic freedom. The Australian Government, universities and universities bodies, such as the Group of Eight, should develop guidelines on reformed global university rankings that include academic freedom. It would incentivize Australian universities to protect academic freedom.

  4. Universities ensure that speakers on sensitive topics are able to present without being heckled and intimidated.

    Events need to provide clear warnings to attendees that inappropriate heckling and comments that disrupts the speaker will result in the individuals being removed from events. Universities must investigate any student or staff who harasses speakers during and/or after the event and be willing to punish them. However, hosts need to avoid shutting down comments and questions that may be critical but add to the debate. Universities globally and in Australia should share information on how to manage lectures and classrooms on sensitive topics that may encounter heckling from pro-CCP individuals.

  5. Hiring and promotion policies need to recognise that CCP entry restrictions affect research output.

    Scholars’ careers should not be hindered if they are blacklisted and unable to receive visas to undertake fieldwork and collaboration in China. Academics should not be sanctioned if they do not undertake sufficient research if there is proof they have been denied access to China to undertake fieldwork or to research participants. Extensions for research should be given if academics need to reach a certain amount of points/credits within a certain timeframe. Quality not quantity should be the criteria for employment.


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