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Australian unis failing Hong Kong students



On 31 March 2019, protests in Hong Kong began over an extradition bill that would severely limit Hong Kong's freedoms and civil liberties. The city has been in a state of turmoil for months and some of that unrest has spilt over into other countries that host a large number of Chinese students.

Pro-Hong Kong demonstrators cover one eye in reference to the bloodied eye patch, another symbol of the Hong Kong protests, in Melbourne on 31 August 2019 in Melbourne. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)Australia has about 17,000 international students from Hong Kong. Many of these students share the same political views as their brethren back home, which was clear by the number of student protests in universities in Brisbane and Sydney as well as by the general Hong Kong (HK) public in the Melbourne CBD over the last few weeks.

Each of these protests has been met with violence and anger by international students and Chinese nationalists from the People's Republic of China (PRC). At the University of Queensland (UQ), the HK students were attacked. At the University of Sydney, its Lennon wall — which has long been a symbol of HK's pro-democracy Umbrella Movement — was torn down. More troubling is the accusation by the editor of student newspaper Sin Hoit that these actions were taken not just by Chinese students, but specifically Chinese students within the students union —whose job is to protect student freedoms.

This is a story that is repeating itself in other parts of the world. At the pro-HK protests in Toronto, Chinese nationalists blockaded traffic with their luxury cars, sending an unsubtle message about Chinese wealth and power. In Vancouver, mainlanders called the HK protestors 'useless teens all raised by prostitutes' and again used luxury cars to signal their superiority over HK. In New Zealand, a HK student was shoved to the ground by mainland students. The Lennon walls in both UQ and at the University of Tasmania were torn down — in the middle of the night by masked men.

There has been little to no reaction from Australian universities in dealing with this besides the usual platitudes. HK students might not have many rights back home, but they do have rights in the Western democracies they are living in. The violence against peaceful protestors not just in HK but in other countries where HK students are exercising their basic rights is unsettling. Yet the response by universities all over Australia has been taciturn at best.

Chinese money is a large reason for the reticence of these universities to take decisive action against those who would violently trample over the rights of other students. At a time where funding for public universities is dropping, many universities here depend upon international students to keep the lights on. A whopping one third of these students are from the PRC. It is understandable that universities are unwilling to threaten their cash cows by angering current and possible future students.

There is also the problem of how to deal with this issue without descending into Sinophobia. Australia has a long history with anti-Chinese sentiment and it is difficult to address these issues without adding to them, especially in a climate where international students are often scapegoats for all the problems within our education system. At the same time, respected researchers who write about the Chinese state and its growing influence on our politics are accused of racism, even though their research has been validated in recent months.


"The attack on Hong Kong students and the intimidation of protestors are all tactics straight out of the CCP's handbook, but carried out on international soil."


Any measures to hold these students responsible cannot play into the hands of xeonophobes, but universities also cannot allow racism to be weaponised as a tool for PRC students, whose actions are openly supported by the Chinese government, to elide accountability. This is clearly a heightened situation where extreme sensitivity is required.

The violence and refusal of Chinese students from the PRC to even allow a different viewpoint to flourish reveals the same ideologies and behavior of the Chinese state. The PRC students and other Chinese nationalists seem to be a microcosmic reflection of the larger PRC state, obsessed with 'One China' and unwilling to allow for any narrative that challenges the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

But what is most worrying is that these students behave as if they are back in China. The attack on HK students, the intimidation of protestors etc. are all tactics straight out of the CCP's handbook, but carried out on international soil. That Australia (and Canada, and other Western countries where this is playing out) are democracies where people have rights does not seem to matter to mainlanders.

These thugs — for what else are we to call them? — show no respect for the countries they live in, or the fact that they are guests here. Their money, and the knowledge that the universities they attend depend on this money, has allowed them to think they can do as they wish with no consequences.

This has serious implications for our democracy. If students and other nationalists from the PRC think their money allows them to get away with disrespecting democratic standards of behavior, what is next?

HK students and their rights to protest need to be protected, a thought echoed by Greens leader Richard Di Natale when he called on the government to give them safe haven, but at a time when even children born on Australian soil are in danger of being deported, it seems unlikely that HK students will be extended special protections.

We are seeing an unprecedented flex of muscle from the Chinese state, a warning not just to HK but to people all over the world who dare to challenge Chinese hegemony. This threat is aimed at all of us but universities seem to be ground zero for it. How these universities deal with PRC students — and how willing they are to do the right thing despite the threat of financial drain — may very well set the stage for how countries deal with China itself in the future.



Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia. She is the originator of the term 'Chinese Privilege', which situates institutionalised racism in Singapore. She can be found at @kaliandkalki

Topic tags: Sangeetha Thanapal, Hong Kong, student activism



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Existing comments

Thank you Sangeetha. That is a very disturbing article and echoes the treatment of the pro democracy protesters in Hong Kong. What is chilling about it is the resort to violence by the PRC students against the HK students and the violence against their symbols of freedom. It goes without saying that the Politbureau is behind this concerted worldwide campaign to stamp China's dominance within countries where it has significant economic influence. The parading of luxury cars to blockade streets is a message to Western democracy that they believe their system of capitalised communism is superior to anything the West can offer. They now have 476 billionaires (mostly high government officials). There is no thought to the saying that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Physical nourishment is not sufficient for a healthy life; man also has spiritual needs. China has deified its Government and will brook no idelogical rivals as the plight of the Christian, Uyghur and Falangong believers demonstrates. There are almost 3 million religious followers in HK in danger of being crushed underfoot by the CCP juggernaut. Student intimidation here must be tackled head on.

francis Armstrong | 18 September 2019  

A very insightful article Sangeetha. I think unfortunately hell will freeze over before the universities take a stand with regard to pro PRC students here. And we only have to look at the current situation of our PM supporting Gladys Liu. Money certainly talks, or in this case silences people, As a casual worker at one of our universities I would like to see students vetted for their PRC sympathies and banned from our shores. (fat chance) With the PRC's record in human rights, I hope I am dead before we eventually have a government run by the PRC. Sadly my children probably won't be. Call me racist if you will.

Henri | 19 September 2019  

If people are found guilty of this sort of thuggery and intimidation, this might be the one instance where I might be in favour of immediate deportation by our government, that increasingly seems to want to implement such drastic measures. Yet why do I suspect they would find a way of NOT finding this a priority for our national security in this instance. I suspect that money will talk more loudly than principles and humanistic concerns, and that fee-paying Chinese Communist Party activists, just as Au Pairs to the rich will be considered more welcome here than say Sri Lankan families who have made such an impression on the rural communities they have lived in for several years, so that those communities are willing to fight tooth and nail for them. We have to consider which of our Australian values are most important. And money is obviously Numero Uno!

PaulM | 19 September 2019  

Quelle surprise. our government only follow trump.

Irena. Mangone. | 19 September 2019  

When we visit other countries we are expected to respect the beliefs, customs and laws of the country we are in, whether on holiday, studying or as residents. When teaching Asian Studies I always gave this as a major reason for teaching my students. In my view regardless of financial cost, students who disobey our laws should be expelled immediately. We must stand by our democratic principles and the rule of law.

Gavin A O'Brien | 19 September 2019  

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