Universities and colleges around the world are "unprepared" to deal with threats to freedom of speech on campus and academic freedom among their scholars as a result of political pressure from Beijing, a New York-based rights group said on Friday.
"Institutions of higher learning around the world should resist the Chinese government's efforts to undermine academic freedom abroad," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
"Few have moved to protect academic freedom against longstanding problems, such as visa bans on scholars working on China or surveillance and self-censorship on their campuses," it said.
"Many colleges and universities around the world with ties to the Chinese government, or with large student populations from China, are unprepared to address threats to academic freedom in a systematic way," the group warned.
A survey of more than 100 interviews with academics, graduates, students, and administrators linked to China at top universities in Australia, Canada, France, the U.K., and the United States found "various threats" to academic freedom as a result of Chinese influence.
"Chinese authorities have long monitored and conducted surveillance on students and academics from China and those studying China on campuses around the world," HRW said.
"Chinese diplomats have also complained to university officials about hosting speakers - such as the Dalai Lama - whom the Chinese government considers 'sensitive'."
Chinese students studying overseas have been subjected to threats via their families back home in China, while others have stayed silent in class for fear of being reported to the Chinese authorities by informants in their student cohort, HRW found.
It said many interviewees had also admitted to modifying their remarks inside and outside classrooms for fear of being denied access to China or to funding sources, of causing problems for students or scholars from China or their family members, or of causing anger among colleagues or students from China.
Confucius Institutes closed
The group said Confucius Institutes, a network of embedded Chinese language-teaching and cultural centers on universities around the world, were a matter of concern to many, as their presence had a chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech on the campuses where they were present.
The University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston have all closed or announced they will close the Confucius Institutes on their campuses because of concerns about academic freedom, among other reasons, HRW said.
"Universities can't continue to rely solely on honor codes or other statements of principle designed to address issues like cheating, plagiarism, or tenure to address pressure from the Chinese government on academic freedom abroad," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said.
"Those don't envision - let alone set out remedies for - the kinds of threats to academic freedom now widely reported."
HRW's warning comes after the University of New South Wales in Australia apologized for removing a tweet criticizing the Chinese government for its suppression of human rights in Hong Kong.
However, the University apologized both to its staff and to China, after the tweet quoting part-time law lecturer Elaine Pearson was removed. Pearson heads HRW's Australia division.
Australia-based student and rights activist Feng Chongyi said that while there is an emerging recognition of the dangers of Chinese influence in Australia, the fact that many universities are run like corporations has skewed the environment where large amounts of revenue are dependent on China.
"University leaders want to cooperate with China as a source of foreign students and funding for some scientific research projects," Feng said. "So they have been trying not to offend China for a long time now."
He said "commercial interests" had led some universities to turn a blind eye to the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and rampant human rights abuses under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Platform for propaganda
Hu Yuming, a former city councilor, said many universities have sold out to Beijing and are now providing a platform for CCP propaganda on Australian soil.
"Some people don't see what is happening, and are driven by vested interests," Hu said. "But there have been a lot of reports in the mainstream media, and they have been exposed to public opinion now."
He said Shaoquett Moselmane, the MP for New South Wales, had been investigated by police and security services after openly praising CCP general secretary Xi Jinping.
"Actually we are talking about a small miniority of people who maybe once worked for the Chinese consulate, and speak up for the CCP whenever they can," Hu said. "They're the rotten apples who turn everything else bad."
Exile political cartoonist Badiucao, said the integrity of Western universities has been compromised by Chinese influence.
"The University of New South Wales completely succumbed to such attacks and threats, and abandoned its responsibility to provide a breeding-ground for free ideas," he said.
"This has brought shame on Australia."
HRW said it has published a set of measures for universities concerned about the threat of CCP influence to implement.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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