‘They’re being watched’: Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia face threats and insults

Wu Lebao, 38, recounts receiving a string of insulting messages and calls from a fellow student calling him stupid and a traitor to 中国.

The alleged harassment experienced by Wu – who is studying mathematics at the Australian National University in Canberra – recently took a disturbing turn.

“He also said he would come to my door at night,” Wu, who lives in student accommodation, tells Guardian Australia.

“It worried me a little bit.”

Wu, 一种 Chinese dissident who was granted refuge by Australia and now has Australian citizenship, says he has reported the matter to university security guards and to the Australian federal police in the ACT – but he questions whether it is being taken seriously.

His experiences are in line with new research that reveals students at Australian university campuses have faced harassment and intimidation for criticising the Chinese Communist party or expressing support for democracy in Hong Kong or mainland China.

Human Rights Watch has found pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong have been threatened by some of their classmates. The threats included physical violence, being reported on to Chinese authorities back home, or having their personal details revealed online.

Human Rights Watch says it has “verified three cases of students in which the police in China visited or asked to meet with their families regarding the student’s activities in Australia”.

“The Chinese authorities threatened one student with jail after the student opened a Twitter account while studying in Australia and posted pro-democracy messages,” Human Rights Watch says in a statement accompanying the release of the report on Wednesday.

“Another student, who expressed support for democracy in front of classmates in Australia, has since had their passport confiscated by Chinese authorities upon returning home.”

The leading human rights organisation believes this kind of “abusive” intimidation does not represent most Chinese students in Australia, but is “carried out by a small but highly motivated and vocal minority who have the potential to influence many others”.

Sophie McNeill, an Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, says she has heard from students “who never speak out in class and never give their opinions because they know they’re being watched”. She contends the university sector on the whole “is in denial” about this issue.

“I think the thing that really emerges from this research is the fear these young people have and the feeling they have nowhere to turn – they feel universities are more concerned about offending Beijing,” McNeill, a former ABC journalist, 说.

“How sad is it that people come all the way from China to study here and think they have a higher level of academic freedom, yet they still feel they’re being surveilled and watched here and they are in fear of being reported by their fellow students?”

Academics in Australia have also reported feeling pressure to self-censor on issues relating to China – adding to “corrosive dynamics” that present a threat to academic freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.

The new report notes students and social media users supportive of the Chinese government “have subjected academics to harassment, intimidation, and doxing if the academics are perceived to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party or discuss ‘sensitive’ issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, 香港, or Xinjiang”.

The rights body says the research is based on 48 interviews it conducted between September 2020 and April 2021.

About half of the interviewees were “pro-democracy” international students studying at Australian universities 11 from mainland China and 13 from Hong Kong – plus two members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

The rights body also interviewed 22 academics who teach Chinese or Hong Kong students or their key area of expertise is China. It gave all interviewees pseudonyms to protect their identity.

One of the interviewees was a female student from China who had attended a Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstration in Australia. The person, given the pseudonym Zhang Xiuying, told researchers she had received a message from a mainland classmate about 2am.

“He was like, ‘I’m watching you.’ Personally, I felt really scared,” she recounted.

“I went to go see the uni psychologist because I was so stressed. I blocked him [the classmate] on Facebook. I was in a course with 98% mainland students. Students were bad-mouthing me. That I was not loyal to the country.”

Li Wei, a student from mainland China, “thought it was safe here” and opened a Twitter account after arriving in Australia to study.

“In March 2020, the local police department [in China] contacted my parents and asked my parents to come to the police station and issued an official warning and they told me to ‘shut the fuck up’ and that I will pay a very heavy price if I come back home,” Li told Human Rights Watch.

“They said I must shut down my Twitter, stop spreading anti-government messages and if I don’t cooperate, they may charge me with a crime. I deleted the Twitter account, because I’m worried about my parents.”

An academic also described a mainland Chinese student facing repercussions after they gave a presentation in class about self-immolation in Tibet.

“Later she came to speak with me during office hours,” the academic told researchers.

“She said her parents’ ‘superiors’ had been notified through one of their workplaces specifically about her Tibet presentation. There’s no other way for her parents to have learned about that other than a reporting mechanism.”

But many of the students said they did not feel comfortable reporting the issues to their universities, fearing they would not take the threats seriously.

An academic at an Australian institution also recounted being asked by a university official to offer a “sanitised” version of his Chinese Studies unit.

The report also describes the fallout from a Melbourne university’s August 2020 tutorial conducted over Zoom, in which a Taiwanese engineering student was the only participant from Taiwan, alongside 20 到 25 students who were from mainland China.

The student mentioned Taiwan “as a country”, prompting a mainland classmate to message the student, “thinking it was private but sending it to the whole class, telling him that Taiwan was not a country and that he should not refer to it as such”.

The class tutor told the mainland Chinese student his language was inappropriate, and another tutor in the engineering course wrote a post to students, stressing the need to celebrate the diversity of students and staff regardless of origin.

“News of what the tutor said began circulating on Chinese social media, where she was doxed with her name, email, and course information,” the report says.

Human Rights Watch says Chinese embassy and consulate-linked student bodies dominate the support networks for students from China, “and this poses difficulties for those who do not want to have any association with the Chinese state”.

在 2015, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, designated students as a “new focus of United Front work” – activities that advance the Chinese Communist party’s interests at home and abroad.

一种 directive sent to eduction officials the following year urged them to “assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy”.

The report says students and academics have also raised concerns that Chinese students studying in Australia “are able to live in an information vacuum akin to life in China” due to an over-reliance on the censored Chinese social media platform WeChat, which is the typical way to communicate with loved ones back home.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the federal government to publish an annual report that documents incidents of harassment, intimidation and censorship affecting international students in Australia, together with the steps taken by those universities to counter those threats.

It has also urged the government to set up a new mechanism “so students at Australian universities can report harassment, intimidation, pressures of censorship or self-censorship, and acts of retaliation involving foreign governments”.

The report will be considered by the parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, whose chair, James Paterson, says the revelations “are profoundly disturbing and indicate many universities are failing their duty of care for their students”.

“Universities must be more proactive in protecting students from foreign government coercion and intimidation,” Paterson tells Guardian Australia. “If they fail in their moral obligation to do so we may have to look at tougher legal obligations to make sure they do.”

The peak body representing universities says the sector resists “any attempt to undermine the foundations of free expression in our classrooms or on our campuses”.

“Every university leader will read this report with concern,” the chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, 说.

“No student or staff member should feel constrained in expressing their views as part of the free exchange of views that is in the DNA of our universities.”

But Jackson argues the attempted coercion of students and staff is not a problem universities can address alone. She says the government-backed university foreign interference taskforce is working on ways to “strengthen deterrence to this kind of coercion”.

Wu, the ANU student who has experienced insulting messages, suggests a lack of federal government funding of universities has left the sector to rely on increased revenue from international students including from China – which has made it harder for institutions to resist pressure.

“I don’t think the universities have been able to stand up firmly to protect freedom on campus and academic freedom, which are essential,” Wu says.

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