OPINION: Australia Must Confront China's Academic Interference

OPINION: Australia Must Confront China's Academic Interference
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What you need to know

The recent decision not to publish the book "Silent Invasion" which examines the growing and surreptitious CCP influence in Australia, raises alarming questions for academic freedom, public discourse, and publishing in Australia.

Allen & Unwin’s recent decision not to publish Professor Clive Hamilton’s book "Silent Invasion", which examines the growing and surreptitious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in Australia, and the cancellation of Hamilton’s appearance at the next year’s Adelaide Writer’s Week, raises alarming questions for academic freedom, public discourse, and publishing in Australia.

Publishing the book would have given readers the opportunity to engage and debate the points Hamilton has made. After all, isn’t the expression of divergent views what academic freedom and public discourse should be about? Hopefully, another Australian publisher will step in and make it available.

I have previously written about the corrosive influence of political donations from CCP sources on Australian democracy. The debacle surrounding Hamilton’s book sheds further light on Chinese influence in Australian universities, media and publishing, and signals to the CCP that Australia is susceptible to pressure — perceived or real.

China’s challenge needs to be confronted. Left unchecked it threatens to undermine the dissemination of ideas and ultimately Australia’s national sovereignty.

CCP influence in Australian universities was highlighted by a "Four Corners" report in June this year. The key revelation in that report was the depth of CCP monitoring of Chinese students and media in Australia to pressure them not to express views contrary to Beijing’s official mantra.

Australian universities host large numbers of Chinese students. This should enable the building of personal relationships that should augur well for the future of Australia-China relations. Indeed, the Australian university experience can help Chinese students better evaluate Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

I relate a personal example. Two Chinese students once proudly told me China had defeated the U.S. and its allies in the Korean War. They were surprised I told them that was not true and said the evidence I produced to prove it was “anti-Chinese”. When I asked them why, if indeed China did win the Korean War, the two Koreas are still divided, they had no response.

Our discussion then shifted to contemporary global and regional politics. The students were astonished I “dared” to freely criticize past and present Australian and international political leaders, saying that in China no one can express such thoughts about CCP officials without risking the attention of “the authorities”, a sentiment which speaks volumes.

I encouraged the students to read "Mao: A Life by Philip Short and Mao: The Unknown Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, two biographies of Mao Zedong that were banned in China. The students went away and read them. Afterwards, they told me the biographies enabled them to begin to make sense of an era their grandparents and parents refuse to discuss.

Exposing Chinese students to ideas and debates which Australian students take for granted can be a powerful antidote to Xi Jinping’s new order, in which state power is increasingly concentrated in his hands.

The non-publication of "Hamilton’s Silent Invasion" is a warning that must be confronted. It is part of a self-imposed censorship in Australian academia, publishing, and public discourse, representing a pervading fear of antagonizing China. Everyone concerned with the free flow of ideas must challenge this.

How can it possibly be in Australia’s long-term interests to acquiesce to Chinese wishes? Why can Australian politicians, academics, and publishers be critical of the United States, our closest and most important strategically, yet be seemingly too afraid to criticize China? Surely our economic relationship with China cannot possibly outweigh the free flow of ideas that has been the foundation of our politics, society, and education system since Federation?

Universities are increasingly dependent on revenue from foreign students. The growing number of Chinese students raises the specter that it will be more difficult for universities to foster objective and independent analysis of China. Australian universities may be reluctant to bite the Chinese hand that feeds them and China, like all great powers, will always act in its own interests.

As a sovereign nation, kowtowing to real or perceived influence of an increasingly authoritarian China is not in Australia’s national interests, irrespective of economic gains.

When world leaders criticize China’s domestic policies, Beijing is quick to extol its policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other nations. This lofty principle clearly does not prevent it from seeking to stifle unfavorable views in Australian public debate. Such hypocrisy must be called out. The failure to publish Hamilton’s "Silent Invasion" is a timely warning that we must confront attempts to influence Australian politics and society.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: David Green