FILE - Students walk on the campus of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, Dec 1, 2020.
FILE - Students walk on the campus of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, Dec 1, 2020.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Chen Yun, a Chinese student at the University of Melbourne, has always been curious about different political systems. After she arrived in Australia, she started posting on social media about the push for democratic reforms in China.

Then came the harassment. She started receiving emails warning that she should be “careful” because if she returns to China, someone would “give her a lesson.”

“I thought I could talk about whatever I want after coming here. I thought I could show my support for democracy but I didn’t expect I actually don’t have that freedom,” she told VOA Mandarin, asking to use a pseudonym due to fear of retaliation by the Chinese government.

Chen’s experience is not unique. Following the deterioration of relations between Canberra and Beijing over the past two years, there has been growing concern in Australia about China’s influence on higher education, and whether it has undermined academic freedom on campus.

The concern was echoed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report, titled “They Don’t Understand the Fear We Have,” pointed out that pro-democracy Chinese students and scholars enrolled in Australian universities have experienced harassment and intimidation if they speak out in classes and on campus.  

“Pro-democracy students from mainland China and Hong Kong experience direct harassment and intimidation from Chinese classmates—including threats of physical violence, being reported on to Chinese authorities back home, being doxed online, or threatened with doxing,” the report said, adding these threats can occur both in person and online. Doxing, also known as doxxing, is publicly identifying or publishing private information about a person to punish them or for revenge.  

According to the report, the Chinese embassy and its consulates in Australia encourage students to report on activities by their classmates that might pose a threat to China’s national security. The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to VOA Mandarin’s request for comment on the HRW report.

For Wu Lebao, 38, the monitoring has led to stress, anxiety, and real impact on his daily life.

Wu is a mathematics student at the Australian National University. He started to participate in pro-democracy movements in China before arriving in Australia and has been harassed by the secret police when he’s in Beijing.  

“Yet the nightmare continues here,” Wu told VOA Mandarin by phone.

“At first it’s just verbal attacks online, but since last year, I’ve been receiving messages from someone, who claimed that he/she knows which dorm I’m in," Wu said. "I would receive text messages at midnight, saying someone would ‘come and get me.’ Honestly, I think this person lives in the same building as me, whenever I speak out on our online group, he/she soon responds with some kind of harassment."

"Now I couldn’t really sleep at night,” he said.

Many Chinese students who want to keep a low profile said they find themselves self-censoring to avoid being reported by their classmates to Chinese authorities. Many of the students who spoke with VOA Mandarin said they had heard rumors, but had no evidence, that students received payment for reporting other Chinese students or teachers.  

Yang Xin, who is in the fourth year of his studies, told VOA Mandarin via phone that he needs to be careful about what he says in class to make sure it cannot be interpreted as “not patriotic enough.” He asked to use a pseudonym to avoid government retaliation.

“There was this discussion on Taiwanese culture. I personally find Taiwanese culture unique and fascinating but I didn’t say that in the classroom,” he said. “Why? Because I know that will be framed as pro-Taiwan independence. Then I might be questioned when I go back to China and even my relatives might be impacted.”

For Yang, the worst part is not knowing who’s watching him. “It creates a lot of anxiety and fear, because anyone around you could be the one that’s reporting you to the authorities,” he said.

According to Australia's Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), as of April 2021, there are over 150,000 students from mainland China studying at Australia’s universities, where they represent close to 30% of all international students.

“University officials are acutely aware of the financial impact full fee-paying international students have on their institutions and how reliant they have become on their fees, which accounted for 27 percent of total operating revenue for the Australian university sector by 2019,” according to HRW. U.S. colleges and universities have been similarly dependent on Chinese students, according to World Education News * Reviews.

More than half, or 62% of Chinese students returned home during the COVID-19 pandemic and switched to online learning. This posed new challenges to faculties at universities, according to HRW, as “Course material designed for Australian campuses was now being accessed by students behind the ‘Great Firewall’ of China, which posed new and difficult security risks for students and academics alike. Despite this, many academics said their university had not offered any official guidance on teaching Chinese students remotely and the security considerations.”

American sociologist Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney where he focuses on China's global economic integration. He said restrictions hinder his students in China.

If he assigns work that requires using sources from major media like the BBC or the New York Times, “it's illegal for the students in China to access those media. So it makes it very difficult for them to do their work. I can't require them to use credible sources when the credible sources are blocked,” he told VOA by phone.

Babones added that in order to protect students in China, he had allowed them to use sources readily available to them even though the material sometimes doesn’t meet the academic requirements of his class.

It’s a predicament well understood by Kuo Mei-fen, a lecturer at the Department of Media and Communications at the Macquarie University in Sydney who switched to online teaching last year.

“There are a few students who are taking online courses in China. Some of them don’t talk at all in class, while others are speaking in line with the Chinese official tones,” she told VOA Mandarin via phone. “I think there’s a consensus among us teachers not to put too much pressure on Chinese students during these online classes, because that might put them in danger.”