This is a guest contribution to our debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?

SINCE early 2017 media, government, academic and intelligence spokespeople in Australia have worked up a rising tide of conjecture about China’s clandestine political influence, coinciding with an increasingly adversarial stance toward Beijing by the Australian government. In these debates on the “China threat,” ordinary Chinese students in Australian universities have become unfortunate scapegoats for national political anxieties. They have been accused of being spies for the Chinese Communist Party, of shutting down freedom of speech on campuses, and of acting as remote-controlled pawns of the Chinese government.

While all of this has been happening, I have been in the midst of a multi-year study of Chinese university students’ social experience while studying in Australia. My participants have been perplexed and angered by the accusations levelled against them. Most find the claims strange, unfair, and implausible. Most confusing is the charge that by voicing their political opinions in the classroom, Chinese students are undermining the free speech of others. “Isn’t expressing our own opinions an instance of free speech, rather than an attack on it?” asked one student. 

He makes a good point. A small handful of cases has been repeatedly recycled as evidence of Chinese students’ supposed hostility to freedom of speech. These include disagreements with lecturers over China’s borders with India, whether Taiwan and Hong Kong should be described as countries, and lecturers’ insinuations that Chinese students cheat in exams and that Chinese officials are often drunk. 

Isn’t expressing our own opinions an instance of free speech, rather than an attack on it?

But in none of these cases did Chinese students try to silence others’ viewpoints. They simply disagreed with their lecturers in the same way that students challenge teaching staff and each other in classrooms all over the country every day. Ironically, we generally welcome such challenges as evidence of students’ independent thinking and their confidence to express dissenting views: core values in the liberal educational tradition.

The suggestion that students are spying on each other and reporting back to shadowy Communist Party bodies leaves most of my study participants equally nonplussed. If anything like this is going on, these students certainly seem unaware of it. None of the Chinese students I know have had any significant contact with Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, often claimed to be the means through which consulates control the student body. Those who have attended occasional activities report that these are social and cultural events without political content.

Concern has been expressed about Chinese students self-censoring on political topics in the presence of compatriots. My experience has been different. Classes I have taught to significant numbers of Chinese students that cover Taiwanese politics, civil rights in China, the Tiananmen Square protests, Hong Kong identity, critiques of Chinese nationalism and the Communist Party as well as other “sensitive” topics have not presented this problem. Mainland Chinese students have contributed earnestly and openly to group discussions both in and out of class and have shown deep interest in studying these topics from alternative perspectives. 

Some commentators point to the nationalism of Chinese students abroad, equating this with unquestioning support for the party and regime. But more in-depth research reveals this phenomenon to be far more complex. My study suggests that while many do find it “cool” to express patriotism on special occasions like October 1st, China’s national day, this does not usually entail total endorsement of their government. The very same students who change their WeChat profile pics to Chinese flags on October 1st or feel morally obliged to defend their homeland’s reputation against attacks by foreigners will readily, in other contexts, criticise government abuses of power, human rights violations, media censorship, or President Xi Jinping’s rewriting of the constitution to indefinitely extend his term in office.

The very same students who defend their homeland’s reputation will readily, in other contexts, criticise government abuses

This is not to say that Chinese students never self-censor while abroad. In an age of rampant popular nationalism often exercised through citizen-led online witch-hunts, it is obvious to most that it would be unwise to make statements openly denigrating China or its government on major public occasions. And it is credible that a small number of ideologically zealous or politically ambitious students may feel compelled to report plans for anti-government protests to consulates and embassies, which obviously have an interest in keeping abreast of such developments. 

But one of the biggest problems with the framing of Chinese students as a national-security threat is that the purported activities of a radical fringe become connected in the public imagination with Chinese students in general. Sadly, it is becoming more and more common to hear both domestic students and university staff voicing mistrust of Chinese students tout court, assuming they must all be politically brainwashed dupes at best or at worst, sleeper agents of the party. Indeed, the Australian debate has become so heated, reductive and polarised that some Chinese-Australian academics––and even non-Chinese scholars of China––feel increasingly hesitant to challenge the discourse of campus infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party for fear of being themselves labelled as its stooges. 

It is ironic indeed that the rhetoric of those who claim to cherish free speech and liberal values should lead to such a Cold War atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust. An open letter signed by 79 of the nation’s prominent China scholars draws critical attention to such counterproductive effects of the current debate. Accusations that Chinese students damage academic freedom obviously also alienate the students themselves, who become embattled and defensive in the face of the barrage of public attacks. This represents a missed opportunity for Australian academia to engage these students effectively. 

The daughters and sons of China’s middle and elite classes, these students will number among China’s future leaders. That they are studying in such numbers in Australia, the US and Europe represents a unique opportunity to engage them intellectually and socially. Mutual respectful engagement could enrich and transform both Chinese students’ understandings of the contemporary world and their place within it, and our own understandings of a rising China and our relation to it. Thanks to the over-simplification of key issues in the current debates, unfortunately these opportunities remain largely unrealised.

Fran Martin is an associate professor and reader in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on television, film, literature and internet culture in China’s international cultural sphere, with a specialisation in gender and queer sexuality. She is currently working on a five-year ARC Future Fellowship project to research the experiences of Chinese students in Australia.

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Debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?

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