Concerns Chinese students studying journalism face growing risks

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A Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstration in Melbourne September 29, 2019. (AAP Image/Ellen Smith: With permission)

She was halfway through her journalism degree at an Australian university when Chloe*, an international student from China, was confronted by a Chinese classmate who accused her of taking an anti-Beijing line in a story she had written.

Threatened with being reported to the Chinese Communist Party, but wanting to continue to develop her skills and profile as a journalist, Chloe concluded she had only two safe optiions: avoid reporting on any matters sensitive in Beijing, or use a pseudonym. Even the latter presented dangers.

“I felt worried that I was just an international student and I would have no protection from the Australian Government were I to get in trouble, so I started to think about ways that I can protect myself,” she said.

Chloe’s experience highlights questions facing journalism schools in Australia and other western nations around the potential risks confronting Chinese students enrolled in subjects teaching democratic media theory and practice.

With Chinese students navigating tightening media constraints from their government, many of them zooming into lectures from inside China due to COVID19 travel restrictions, the pressure on educators to recognise potential risks has intensified. A report released today by Human Rights Watch indicates that while some lecturers scramble to understand and respond to concerns, university administrators are turning a “blind eye”, leaving educators and students to figure it out for themselves.

“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report and a former ABC foreign correspondent.

“Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring, while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies.

“The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”

The findings confirmed what Chloe said she feared. “The university has no policy or no protocol that can be publicly accessed, and as a student I think that is what concerned me when I wanted to write about topics that were controversial,” she told The Citizen.

After she was harassed, Chloe reported the incident to “several university programs” tasked with student safety, but felt they weren’t equipped to help.

“I ended up going to the teaching staff who were much more helpful than the university programs, but really it should be the university programs which are tasked with student safety and support with this type of thing,” she said.

The report found that harassment, surveillance, and intimidation of pro-democracy students from China has increased over the past decade. Yet universities have failed to develop policies and systems that adequately discourage and respond to this behaviour, it said.

Li Wei, a student whose experience is cited in the report, said his parents had been visited by Chinese police due to pro-democracy messages he had posted on Twitter, and he has decided he cannot return home. Another student reported that he had been pressured by government officials to spy on Uygher diaspora in Australia. He ended up moving to a new city where there was not a large local Uyghur community.

“The majority of students who experienced harassment didn’t report it to their university,” said Ms McNeill.

“They believe their universities care more about maintaining relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating students supportive of China’s Communist Party.”

Their lecturers are also feeling on unsafe ground, with the report finding that university staff were not getting appropriate guidance and support. One unnamed academic is quoted saying “the [university administrators] make it very clear you have to look after yourself”.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities have long-established and robust policies to deal with coercion and intimidation on our campuses, and urge students to report any incidents of concern.

“Attempted coercion of students and staff is not a problem that universities can address alone. The partnership approach established through UFIT (the University Foreign Interference Taskforce) is essential to tackling these very complex issues.

“(The taskforce) brings together government, security agencies and university expertise to develop additional guidance for the sector in dealing with difficult issues that affect students and staff, including those raised in the Human Rights Watch report,” she said.

While the report does not hone in on experiences in a particular degree, Ms McNeill told The Citizen that the study of journalism loomed as a particular risk for Chinese students.

In April her colleague Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, shared a tweet: “How to deter young people in China from taking up journalism – threaten it can be conflated with national security crimes”. It was in reference to an article released by Chinese news publication Xinhua about three students studying in Hong Kong who had allegedly committed espionage.

Two of the students mentioned were media or journalism students, one having worked for a Western media organisation in China and abroad, and had “spread anti-China material”, the article said.

This is symptomatic of increasing crackdowns on media in the face of China’s sweeping National Security Laws for Hong Kong, including the arrest of a 22-year-old Chinese citizen for allegedly “subverting state power” after he worked as an intern for a foreign media outlet, the trial currently underway for Australian journalist Yang Hengjun, and the recent arrest of a senior journalist working for now-closed Apple Daily newspaper.

Questions on how to respond to this situation have loomed large for university staff since the pandemic resulted in many Chinese students studying course content designed for Australian campuses in their home country behind the “Great Firewall of China”.

Associate Professor Andrew Dodd is director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, which runs a Master of International Journalism program that includes Chinese enrollments. He said Australia’s education sector needed to continually develop policies to meet student and staff needs, but added that journalism schools needed the autonomy to guide their students.

Lecturers were meeting regularly to discuss the potential risks and develop best practice, he said. These included a preamble for subjects so students were adequately informed on curriculum materials and expectations, and increased opportunities for advisory meetings or mentoring sessions with students.

“We will help students understand the risks they face and to make informed decisions about what they do,” said Dr Dodd.

Professor Peter Greste, UNESCO chair in journalism and communications at the University of Queensland, said the school considered the risks involved in stories pitched by its students, and advised them appropriately.

“If a student decided they wanted to go off and cover the conflict in the Middle East, we would just as soon also sit down with them and have a long conversation about the risks involved, in the same way that we might agree with dealing with Chinese students during contentious stories,” he said.

Dr Dodd said providing exposure to democratic media traditions was an important component of journalism education, even if students returned to work in a context in which applying these principles was difficult.

“The knowledge finds ways of influencing people’s work and careers, and it tends to sow seeds that germinate in all sorts of ways,” he said.

One potential solution, at least in the short term, could be to steer students enrolling from China to reporting on non-controversial issues when required to produce stories for applied subjects. But, as one Chinese-born journalism student who is now an Australian citizen, said: for many Chinese students seeking opportunities inside Australian media, their knowledge and engagement with newsworthy and controversial issues and their language skills were their greatest strengths.

“The fact that we’re in Australia, and China is a really big topic in the political discussion means there’s not really a way that you can really stay away from reporting controversial issues.”

Dr Dodd said avoiding engagement in topical issues would also undermine the experience and value of the democratc media traditions taught in journalism schools.

“We don’t want to be prevented from talking about difficult topics. And we’ll be making sure that we’re not self-censoring ourselves or students and their wish to shine a light on complex or contested issues,” he said.

Ms McNeill told The Citizen: “The wider Australian community really needs to wake up and realise the costs that our Chinese friends are facing.

“I predict that we’ll have more people seeking asylum in this country as we see the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. We need to think about how we can protect these very brave people who sometimes give up everything to speak out, and the more support that we give them the better.”

This story is co-published with Crikey.com

*Due to security and safety concerns, Chloe is a pseudonym. Further, an earlier version of this story referred to one source as a dual citizen of Australia and China. This is corrected to refer to the student as Chinese-born, now an Australian citizen.

Note: The Citizen is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. It operates independently under a Charter of Editorial Integrity which is endorsed by the University Council.