China’s threat to academic freedom

The corrosive influence on Australian publishing and public discourse

Daniel Fazio

International relations, Education | Australia, Asia, East Asia

6 December 2017

The non-publication of a book examining China’s influence in Australia is a timely reminder of the Communist Party’s growing ability to stifle public debate, Daniel Fazio writes.

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.

More on this: China capitulationism | Clive Hamilton

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 US 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 criticise 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.

More on this: Australia: we need to talk about China

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 antagonising 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 strategic ally, yet be seemingly too afraid to criticise 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 spectre 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 criticise 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 unfavourable 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.

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4 Responses

  1. Clive Hamilton says:

    Thank you Daniel for this article. You are one of a very small number (3 or 4) of academics who have publicly expressed alarm about what has happened. Otherwise I have heard only silence about this serious assault on the academic freedom of all researchers and teachers in Australian universities. Where is the union? Where are the academies? Where are the disciplinary associations? Where is Universities Australia? Isn’t failure to resist the erosion of freedom complicity in it?

  2. Olga_Krasnyak says:

    I realize that the question here is about academic freedom in Australia, although I confirm that those rare Chinese students in my classes are not aware of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The “Tank man” episode is unknown.
    Such historical narrative strictly opposes democratic values.

  3. Julia Perry says:

    Turnbull’s crazed shrieking criticism of Sam Dastyari’s Chinese connections stands at odds with his silence on his own party’s, and corporate Australia’s, suppression of discussion on China and its influence.

  4. Sptay says:

    If you fear getting wet, don’t go out into the water. Same thing with China, don’t want to be influenced, stop lusting for their money…period.
    In any transaction, there are the give and take….there is no free lunch.
    Stop lusting for their money..and you don’t have to fear their influence.

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