18th March 2019
By Katherine Everest

China’s position within Australia’s domestic policy is currently a hot topic. One that has far reaching implications for the future of our society. One implication of China’s growing influence in the region is the potential effect it could have on Australia’s higher education system. As China continues to play an ever-growing role in the sustainability of our tertiary education system, will Australian universities soon face pressure to implement educational characteristics reminiscent of those seen in China today? 

In 2015, under the One Belt, One Road initiative (B&R), Xi’an Jiaotong University launched the University Alliance of the Silk Road (UASR).  The alliance of more than 130 universities worldwide is geared at building educational collaboration between members. In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) published a development plan under the B&R that encourages student exchange, joint research, credit recognition, the establishment of sister schools, and the development of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. The alliance and development plan act as counterparts in China’s plans to internationalise its education system, encourage the educational development of Asia, and promote economic growth in countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt.

So how does Australia fit into the narrative?

Thus far, Australian members of the UASR include the University of New South Wales (UNSW), The University of Queensland, The University of Newcastle, and the Charles Darwin University. Once a member, universities are required to sign the Xi’an Declaration, agreeing to ‘contribute to the common development of civilizations and the open collaboration in higher education’.  

In recent years Australian universities have witnessed a significant increase in the number of international student enrolments from the People’s Republic of China. Statistics released by the Australian Department of Education and Training (DET) indicate that in November 2018 Chinese international students accounted for 30 percent of students studying abroad in Australia, with the next largest cohort residing from India at 13 percent. Data from the DET also shows that from 2013, the year the B&R initiative was introduced, to 2017, Chinese international student enrolments increased from 92,248 students to 133,880. In the 2016-2017 financial year alone, Chinese international students injected US$6.9 billion into Australian universities.

Further symbolic of Australia’s growing educational ties with China are statistics presenting Australia as hosting the third highest number of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms worldwide. Confucius Institutes and Classrooms promote Chinese language and cultural exchange. They were established as part of a partnership between Australian universities and schools, and the Office of the Chinese Language Council, Hanban. According to the NSW Department of Education, Hanban have paid up to $40,000 for the establishment of programs, and contribute ongoing maintenance funds on an annual basis. Six out of the Group of Eight (Go8) Universities have incorporated Confucius Institutes into their universities, excluding Monash University and Australian National University, and in some cases institutes have administered programs in public and private schools. Outside of the Go8, the University of Newcastle and La Trobe University have also set up Confucius Institutes.

Indicative also of Australia and China’s growing educational ties are Australian universities’ attraction towards Chinese funding within the research and development (R&D) sector. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecasts China will become the world’s largest single investor in R&D by the end of 2019. In a 2017 Panel Session hosted by UNSW International, ‘Mapping the global higher education landscape- China and East Asia’, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) of UNSW, Laurie Pearcey, stated his support for educational funding from the People’s Republic of China.

“From my own country of Australia’s point of view, with long term funding for our universities plagued by a government which increasingly views investment in higher education through a prism of budget repair, debt and deficit. Australian universities are being forced like never before to look to our Northern neighbours.”

“From my own country of Australia’s point of view, with long term funding for our universities plagued by a government which increasingly views investment in higher education through a prism of budget repair, debt and deficit. Australian universities are being forced like never before to look to our Northern neighbours.”

Mr Laurie Pearcey, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) of UNSW

Mr Pearcey, who is also a Member of the Go8’s International Strategy Group, and previous CEO of the Australia China Business Council, believes it is time Australia looked “beyond the fog of protectionist nationalism and pursue our 21st century competitiveness as a player in an intra-Asian paradigm”. Furthermore, the Go8 boasts plans on their website to expand numerous international alliances and agreements with the China 9 (C9) research-intensive universities, including the Go8-C9 Research Leadership Executive Shadowing program, and the Go8-C9 summer school global leadership program.

Shifting focus to the current educational climate in China; universities and colleges in China fall under the control of a Communist Party of China, and selection of teaching staff is under the guidance of the party. Crackdowns on dissident academics, censorship of academic material, enrolment within compulsory political subjects, and the installation of CCTV surveillance within lecture theatres are features typical of the higher education system within China today.

A communique circulated within the Communist Party of China (CPC), and later leaked in 2013, the ‘Comminiqué on the Current State of Ideological Sphere’, otherwise known as Document Number 9, detailed seven political perils for the party to be aware of and avoid. It warned that power held by the party could be lost if the seven perils were not successfully eradicated from Chinese society. The seven perils included; i. Promoting Western constitutional democracy that undermines the current leadership and socialist governing system, ii. Promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundation of the Party’s leadership, iii. Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation, iv. Promoting Neoliberalism in attempts to change China’s basic economic system, v. Promoting the West’s idea of journalism, and challenging the notion that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline, vi. Promoting historical nihilism in attempts to undermine the history of the CPC and the New China, and vii. Questioning reform and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Incorporated within the communique was a list of institutions considered to be penetrated by the perils, including public lectures, seminars, university classrooms, class discussion forums, civilian study groups, and individual publications.

Consequently, Chinese academics and academic institutions have felt the repercussions of efforts to eliminate these perils. In May 2016 The Guardian reported on what US scholars have described as an influx of Chinese intellectuals, primarily political scientists, or international relations and law experts, seeking refuge in the US. Detailed in the report was Chinese activist and scholar, Teng Biao’s, ordeal of seeking refuge on the east coast of America, and awaiting his family’s arrival after feeling Beijing’s intensifying control over freedoms in China. Jerry Cohen, a veteran China expert who has offered his assistance to self-exiled academics, quoted in the article, “I think there is much more attention to what you teach, what materials you use, what you say in class, what you can write and publish, whom you can contact, and where you get your support.”

An influx in the censorship of educational material within China has also been witnessed. After a high-level CPC meeting in late 2016 where President Xi renewed requests for the country’s colleges to pledge allegiance to the Party, China’s top anti-corruption agency, the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), carried out inspections on 29 of China’s top-tier universities to ensure institutions were appropriately fostering CPC ideology. A sweeping inspection of school textbooks ran by China’s education ministry in late 2018 disposed of illegal, foreign, or self-written material used by schools, and replaced them instead with state-approved materials that re-asserted CPC ideology.

Censorship of course materials, and content learnt within lectures aren’t the only tightening restrictions felt by university students. Students are also required to attend mandatory ideology classes that focus on Marxism, and Mao Zedong Thought. Recently President Xi has revamped classes to include his own signature ideology. Before moving to Melbourne to study, an international Chinese student who has chosen to remain anonymous, recalls having to study two compulsory courses during their time at Shanghai University. “There is a curriculum set up by the government, so that you have to study politics. There are several subjects you have to take as a freshman in the university in China. Everyone. One’s called the Theory of Military. So they just teach you how weapons are made, and what weapons we use for war. But that’s not the worst one, there’s also another one called, something related to morals. It’s about the political background of the country, and what you need to be a good human being. You shouldn’t betray your country. So that’s a must.”

“There is a curriculum set up by the government, so that you have to study politics. There are several subjects you have to take as a freshman in the university in China. Everyone. One’s called the Theory of Military. So they just teach you how weapons are made, and what weapons we use for war. But that’s not the worst one, there’s also another one called, something related to morals. It’s about the political background of the country, and what you need to be a good human being. You shouldn’t betray your country. So that’s a must.”

Over the last decade, CCTV surveillance has also been installed in classrooms of several top universities within China. Officials from the CPC and universities maintain the purpose of CCTV monitoring is to encourage good study habits within students, and appraise academics’ work. However, there are concerns CCTV surveillance is being used as a form of spying to ensure scholars are not deviating from the state approved syllabus. In 2015, The Wuchang University of Technology in Hubei province went as far as installing surveillance across its entire 181-acre campus, including within student dormitories, and employed a team of 100 officials to monitor footage captured.

With such strict regulations in place across educational institutions, the question arises; how is it the CPC feel comfortable sending students abroad to receive an education in an environment that doesn’t enforce similar regulations? Mr Pearcey states that sending students abroad to receive quality education not available at home, and forging international educational partnerships are strategies vital to China’s plans to reform higher education within China, and avoid the middle-income trap that Beijing is so desperate to avoid. However, is China able to simultaneously achieve the goals of higher educational reform through international educational partnerships, whilst maintaining the assertion of CPC ideology and patriotism that it fosters at home? Is it possible that encompassed within China’s plan to internationalise its educational system is an objective to export CPC ideology and patriotism instilled within its own borders?

Significant investment from Chinese international students, ongoing payments from Hanban Language Council, investment projects between Go8 and C9 universities, and a push from members of the Go8’s International Strategy Group to draw upon China for long term funding in Australian universities creates sufficient potential for Chinese influence in Australia’s higher education sector. With future investment only likely to grow, potential for Chinese influence in Australia’s higher education sector can only increase. It is difficult to imagine any form of international investment in the global political economy today coming as a no-strings-attached deal. So, what could this mean for Australian universities?

Dr Chengxin Pan, Associate Professor of International Relations at Deakin University, and member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, specialises in Chinese foreign policy and international relations, as well as US and Australian foreign policy. Dr Cheng believes investment in education should be welcomed. If China and Australia’s relationship can remain one that encourages “two-way traffic” he believes there is much to be gained from it. However, he does warn that, “specific investments and programs need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, of course, as recently perceived Chinese money and influence in the educational and R&D sectors has raised questions about academic freedom, intellectual property theft, and national security implications”.

“Specific investments and programs need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, of course, as recently perceived Chinese money and influence in the educational and R&D sectors has raised questions about academic freedom, intellectual property theft, and national security implications”

Dr Chengxin Pan, Associate Professor of International Relations at Deakin University

Instances of Chinese influence on Australia’s higher education sector have already been witnessed.

On more than one occasion, Australian universities have been asked by Chinese authorities to apologise for teaching material considered offensive, and non-aligned with the Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy. Quartz Media reported that in 2017 a professor at the University of Newcastle was forced to apologise for offending Chinese international students in his lecture after referring to Taiwan as an independent country. Similarly, The Australian reported in 2017 the University of Sydney was asked by the Chinese consulate in Sydney to reconsider hosting organised discussions on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Former Asia-Pacific Editor for the Australian, and China Correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, Mr Rowan Callick, stated, “There is some evidence that Chinese missions overseas – and possibly the United Front Work Department – encourage Chinese students to let them know if, or when, they identify elements of courses of teaching that appears antithetical to the party-state worldview”.

Australian academic publishers are also feeling the pressures of censorship to conform to CPC ideology. It was revealed by Reuters in 2017 that Sydney based publisher, Allen & Unwin, delayed the publication of a book written by Clive Hamilton, ‘Silent Invasion’ which alleged Chinese government influence in Australian institutions. The publisher followed legal advice to forego publishing the book after being warned publication could draw legal action from Beijing.

If Australian civil society is already witnessing repercussions of increased Chinese investment and influence in the higher education system, what can we expect if future investment increases? If Australia is on course to making China one of its main investment partners in higher education, how could this shift the educational norms we are used to today?

Could Australian university students soon be learning from a curriculum more closely aligned with CPC ideology? Could we soon witness the installation of CCTV surveillance in our own lecture theatres? Is it possible funding for political research could decrease or be withdrawn if it does not endorse the appropriate political ideology? Should we prepare for decreased freedom in the academic arena? Or will Australian universities devise a way to maintain their autonomy and academic freedom in a relationship that many fear could be one sided? If the need arises, how do they intend to do so? These are questions that can only be answered in the future, but for now, from an educational perspective, should Australia be wary of Chinese investment into its universities?

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