Little Red Podcast

Tinker, Tailor, Student, Spy?6 min read

Australia’s Chinese student boom – Louisa Lim


Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to share the news that The Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, was this year’s winner of the Australian Podcast Awards in the news and current affairs category. At the China Channel (and at our former incarnation at the LARB China Blog) we have long been collaborating with the podcast to bring you Louisa’s companion essays to each new episode. Below is Louisa’s essay paired with last week’s episode about Chinese students in Australia, as well as the Soundcloud audio. Our hearty congratulations to Louisa, Graeme and the team. – Alec Ash

Chinese students in Australia – variously viewed by Australians as “rivers of gold” or tools of a foreign power – are beginning to voice their own dissatisfaction with their host country. They complain of racism, a lack of opportunities to integrate, and a perceived double standard where voicing their opinions is seen by others as a threat to freedom of speech. For the past year, they have been pawns in an increasingly acrimonious political debate about Beijing’s influence in Australia.

Education has become Australia’s third largest industry. Last year, Australia hosted 170,000 Chinese students, who made up 43% of the total international cohort in Australia’s elite Group of Eight universities. This year, the most recent statistics show that Chinese student numbers rose 17%. Certain courses – for example business administration, commerce and accounting – are extremely popular, and in some universities these subjects are taken almost exclusively by Chinese students.

“I think the high dependency on student enrolments and the fees that they’re paying is a real genuine risk for Australian universities,” says Linda Jakobson, CEO of China Matters, a not-for-profit initiative aimed at discussing Australian public policy towards China.  She interviewed five of the Group of Eight vice-chancellors for a policy brief on Chinese students co-authored with Macquarie University’s Bates Gill. “I think all the major universities are keenly aware of that risk,” she says, pointing out that the Group of Eight are particularly reliant on Chinese fees to fund their research.

One major turning point came last December, when the Chinese embassy in Canberra issued a safety warning cautioning about “attacks and insults targeting Chinese students,” amidst public debate about legislation to counter foreign interference focused on China.   China-watchers read that warning as serving multiple purposes. “That was the first, very small step in the use of economic coercion,” says Jakobson. It was followed in March by a “red alert” in the Chinese media, again warning students not to enroll in Australian universities, accompanied by reports around the same time of dozens of Chinese school groups cancelling trips to Australia. Jakobson says the true effect of these warnings will not flow through until the beginning of 2019.

To gauge opinion among Chinese students, the Little Red Podcast conducted about a dozen interviews in early May in Melbourne, where students were not asked for their names in the interests of eliciting candid comments. Most students said the wider debate about Chinese influence had limited impact upon their lives, except in one case, as described by a female student: “In class, one student in my tute group is always asking me, ‘What are you doing here? Are you a spy?’ I was astonished. I didn’t really know why they were joking about that. But it made me really uncomfortable because of course I’m not a spy. And when they ask me every week, it starts to get a little bit offensive.”

For some Chinese students who study on courses with large Chinese intakes, their lives in Australia are disappointingly similar to their existence back home. According to government surveys, Chinese students’ satisfaction rates with their Australian interactions are about 10% lower than that of other international students. This theme was often voiced in our interviews, as well. There are “too many foreigners in the school,” one young man said. “For me, I just want to meet some Australian local students, but I don’t see too many.” A female student also complained, saying, “My English progress is quite slow. Some days I feel like I can just get by in Chinese.”

Such demographics have alarmed critics such as Clive Hamilton, author of Silent Invasion – a book outlining Chinese influence in Australia that was dropped by Hamilton’s original publisher, Allen & Unwin, for fear of a backlash including possible legal action from China.  Two other publishers turned the book down, before it was finally published by Hardie Grant in the Australian market in March this year. Hamilton told the Sydney Morning Herald, “The overdependence on Chinese students is corroding the soul of our universities.”

These worries were exacerbated by a number of cases last year where academics were forced to apologise over comments deemed insensitive – often over issues involving China’s territorial integrity – following concerted campaigns spearheaded by Chinese students. In one case, when a University of Newcastle lecturer referred to Taiwan as a separate country, a video posted online shows a Chinese student openly upbraiding him: “Chinese students make up one-third of this classroom,” the student says angrily, “You make us feel uncomfortable. … You have to show respect.”

Many students told us they sympathized with such views, though they did not approve of  such public, vocal confrontations, with Chinese students taking lecturers to task. One University of Melbourne academic, Fran Martin, who has been tracking the progress of around 50 Chinese students in Australia, says that many in her cohort felt they were simply making use of the freedom of expression offered by their host country, and were bewildered by any criticism: “The Chinese students themselves saw that what they were doing was actually expressing their right to free speech. They just had a different opinion. To accuse them of damaging free speech by expressing that opinion seemed like a massive double standard.”

Such divides underline the social exclusion felt by Chinese students in Australia, who often struggle to integrate into the wider community. Linda Jakobson’s recommendations include more work by universities to lessen the isolation of international students, as well as further work by institutions to formulate a uniform set of procedures to counter harassment and bullying of anyone deemed “anti-PRC”. If these steps are not taken seriously, Jakobson warns, Beijing’s influence could consist of targeted punitive measures against a specific institutions. “I would hate to see one university suffer so-called economic punishment or coercion, and the others not speaking up on behalf of academic freedom,” she warns. “I think those kind of instances could be ahead of us in this country. And we should be prepared for them.”


This essay is a companion piece to last week’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith in collaboration with Louisa Lim.
Header image: Australia Day 2014, from Wikimedia Commons.