The Guardian • Issue #1978

McCarthyism on the rise in Australian universities

In Australia’s latest self-sabotaging attack on China, the Morrison government has released a proposal that targets students and academics at Australian universities who may have ties with or support the Chinese government. These draconian policies encourage students to report on those who defend China in tutorials and lectures and force academics to share the past ten years of their political activity – sabotaging a basic right to privacy and freedom of political expression of workers in Australia.


The move comes after the neo-liberal deceptive think tank Human Rights Watch (HRW), which was founded as a propaganda tool against the Soviet Union, released an article which essentially tipped facts on their head, suggesting that supporters of China’s peaceful rise were intimidating, harassing and censoring students who have pro-imperialist views. In reality, it is those academics who make even the slightest comment that might challenge Western thought, and those students who challenge ignorant Western bias who are intimidated into self-censorship.

Chen Hong, professor and director of the Australian Studies Center, East China Normal University expressed, “I am afraid the real situation on Australian campuses is the opposite of what Human Rights Watch’s report portrayed. As anti-China hysteria has hit fever pitch in Australia in recent years, a McCarthy scare not only prevails in Australian politics, but also in universities. Many mainland students dare not publicly express their support for the Chinese system or China’s policies on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”


In August, Professor Jane Golley was stood down as director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) after she was targeted for making remarks that the estimated a figure of one million Uyghurs in re-education camps might be exaggerated. Even this statement barely touches on the actual situation, in which China introduced vocational centres to address rising extremism and terrorist attacks in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region amongst some Uyghur separatists. Unlike the US, which bombs countries in the name of countering terrorism, China developed educational centres to bring stability to the area. With this approach, Xinjiang has not had a terrorist attack since 2017, and the Uyghur population now have more opportunities to study and work.


With the spread of disinformation in Australia about human rights abuses in China, COVID-19 being labelled the “China virus,” and the ramping up of unfounded fears of Chinese influence in Australia, ethnically Asian people in Australia have increasingly reported being targeted and facing harassment and intimidation.

In March 2020, University of Queensland (UQ) student Drew Pavlou dressed in a hazmat suit at the front of the university’s Confucius Institute, labelling it a “biohazard risk.” This was just one of Pavlou’s many insults against Chinese people and Chinese institutions at UQ leading to his suspension. The decision was made on the ground that he violated university policy by discriminating against, harassing, and bullying staff and students. Yet it seems Pavlou would likely be celebrating the latest wave to suppress any genuine understanding of Chinese culture and politics, along with his readmission to UQ this year.


Universities have not been the only institutions to be forced to decouple from research and expertise coming out of China. In June this year, a cooperative research partnership between the CSIRO and China’s Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology (QNLM) was cancelled following fear mongering presuming Australian submarines would be more easy to target. Many scientists were outraged at the move, making comments that the presumed defence risk was a joke, and the move would only hurt Australia’s ability to predict and adapt to significant threats from climate change.

The Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) was established by the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan in 2019 under the premise of addressing foreign interference in the educator sector. If the new guidelines released by this taskforce were in line with genuinely cracking down on these concerns, there would be little investigation needed to seek out US foreign interference in Australian universities. Unfortunately, the average Australian has been convinced into thinking the US supports the interests of everyday Australians, with shared values of democracy, freedom and liberal rights. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Australians should be most concerned about the interoperability of US influence on political decisions, which have undermined any form of democratic notion in the country, including students’ ability to make non-biased, informed decisions about their biggest trade partner.

The taskforce leader, Tehan, even met with the Biden administration earlier this year to discuss strategies to “protect values” and “counter China’s actions.” In an interview in Washington he even warned, “if we have to pay an economic price [to counter Beijing], that’s something that we’re prepared to pay.” This statement is a gross insult on the working class in Australia as well as academics and students as it creates more boundaries for trade, cooperation, and crucial research with China, hence threatening living standards in Australia now and into the future.


The threat of China is a fabrication aimed at isolating China and maintaining US hegemony. By taking away the average citizen’s ability to study geopolitics earnestly and make their own understandings, the world becomes further divided. This division is strategic and not at all new. During the first Cold War, the West used similar tactics against the Soviet Union, in creating a Western and Eastern Bloc of allied and adverse countries, essentially based on whether the nation conformed to US interests or supported national sovereignty and socialist ideals. The strategy was successful for the imperialists, and threw the Soviet Union and supporting nations into turmoil, allowing reactionary forces to destroy major wins for workers all over the world.

While the current climate of reactionary behaviour towards China is comparable, the geopolitical conditions are vastly different. China’s approach to making market reforms and engaging in international cooperation means it has created allies and positive relationships between the East and the West. No longer can the US rely on the world trusting in their rhetoric of liberal rights or freedom of democracy with their track record – especially when China can offer something vastly more peaceful and cooperative. The actions of the Chinese nation speaks volumes over the deceptions of the US empire, and will be trusted moving forward. Australian politicians need to recognise this and put themselves on the right side of history. Any delay in this will only see Australia follow the US into isolation from the rest of the world.

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