In 2020, nearly 160,000 students from China were enrolled in Australian universities. Despite the Chinese government in Beijing being thousands of kilometres away, many Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia say they alter their behaviour and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from fellow classmates and being 'reported on' by them to authorities back home.
Students and academics from or working on China told Human Rights Watch that this atmosphere of fear has worsened in recent years, with free speech and academic freedom increasingly under threat. The Chinese government has grown bolder in trying to shape global perceptions of the country on foreign university campuses, influence academic discussions, monitor students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 40 percent of all onshore international students in Australia came from China, with Chinese students making up roughly 10 percent of all students attending Australian universities. Even with borders closed due to the pandemic, international education remains one of Australia’s top exports as universities put courses online and some international students remain in the country.
This research builds on Human Rights Watch’s 2019 research into the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine academic freedom globally, which included a 12-point code-of-conduct for colleges and universities to adopt to respond to Chinese government threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars, and educational institutions.