The view from Billinudgel

Blind study
When it comes to China’s influence, Australian universities have been burying their heads in the sand for too long

If universities are to function as they should – as bastions of research, learning and dialogue – it is axiomatic that they must be allowed their autonomy, that governments should fund them and let them get on with it.

But this does not mean that academia must be shielded from criticism when its key functions are threatened, especially when the threats come from outside. For universities, the enemy is now at the gates, and even inside them.

It has become clear that the bully boys of Beijing are determined to exert their hegemony on Australian campuses, and that they are prepared to use coercive tactics when argument will not suffice. And, most disturbingly, those responsible for maintaining free debate are not simply ignoring the problem, they are publicly excusing it – even nurturing it.

This means that, in particular, Chinese students who have dared to speak out about Hong Kong feel helpless and betrayed. As Elaine Pearson, an adjunct lecturer in law at the University of New South Wales and the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said last week, “This fear is real.”

In my antediluvian days at Sydney University, there were regular political stand-offs between the left and right, as there should have been. These typically involved plenty of players from outside the citadel, not only Australians but also the Cold War propagandists from the US and USSR. Disarmament, for instance, was a fertile battleground. There was even the occasional physical confrontation, with meetings disrupted or closed down. But violence, whether actual or implied, was considered unacceptable and was quickly stopped if it occurred.

But now violence appears the default option for those who are not getting their way without hindrance or complaint. The evidence is largely anecdotal, but this only underlines the issue: the tactics of coercion and intimidation, both for those directly affected and, worse, their relatives in the fiefdom of Xi Jinping, are succeeding. And the authorities have chosen to do nothing about it.

It is said that Australian universities are just worried about the money, that Chinese students have become their core business and so China must be placated at all costs. But, if this is so, such a mercenary priority will eventually prove counterproductive – they may have saved their fortress only to destroy it in the process.

It seems that the only alternative the universities can contemplate is a different source of revenue – by which they inevitably mean the federal government. And it is undoubtedly true that Canberra’s parsimony – the cuts that have been part of the Coalition’s weaponry in the culture wars, distorting and demeaning the Australian conversation for far too long – has been a key factor in the decline of the university sector.

But more probably it comes down to a simple failure of nerve by university bigwigs. Like many bureaucrats, the shiny bums at the top prefer the ostrich option to taking action. Let the warring factions sort it out for themselves. And if they can’t, well, tough – there are plenty more students where they came from, and if some are more interested in politics than intellectual endeavour, who cares as long as someone is paying the bills.

It’s cynical, short-sighted and gutless – everything a proper university should eschew. Perhaps the teachers have been taking lessons from their political masters. If so, both deserve a fail.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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