With an aim to control the opinion of China’s overseas students, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has now started an online portal that allows Chinese citizens to identify and call out their own for ‘political crimes’.
The portal can be accessed by Chinese citizens across the world.
The recent controversy in Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) over an article published on its website raising concerns about human rights in China and other regions like Hong Kong brought the issue out in the open.
An aggressive online campaign was launched targeting the university and rallying support of Chinese students.
China’s handling of Hong Kong and the introduction of the National Security Law were heavily scrutinized and covered internationally. It was a chance for the world to see how China handles democratic dissent and political activism.
The recent developments have added to fears that Chinese students across the world will be under lens for speaking their mind out with no scope for dissent against their own government.
Professors across Australian, British and American universities have often commented on the pressures faced by the overseas Chinese students. It is often recorded that Chinese students studying overseas are intimidated when it comes to taking political stances as they fear being outed by fellow nationalist classmates from China.
It is also been noticed that if a student participates in discussions or gatherings speaking against the CCP or China’s policies, his or her families back in China were put through unwanted pressure by authorities.
The Chinese students were always wary of participating in the Hong Kong demonstrations that took place across the US and Australia against China, and, a few that did, faced ramifications back home from security agencies.
Muhammad Faizal, a noted security analyst and a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore feel Chinese nationals living overseas have good reasons to fear offending the CCP.
” Firstly, China’s National Intelligence Law (2017) makes it obligatory for Chinese citizens in the country and overseas to support intelligence work for state security. Secondly, China’s United Front Work Department is reaching out to Chinese citizens overseas to influence them and curb dissent. Thirdly, China’s social credit system demonstrates the CCP’s seriousness in controlling the behaviours of its citizens,” he said.
There are fears that with growing cases of Chinese espionage and surveillance, not only are Chinese nationals being looked at differently, but there could be a similar view against many other South Asian nationals living in the US, UK and Australia.
The recent case of Dickson Yeo, a Singaporean who pleaded guilty to acting within the US as an illegal agent of Chinese intelligence has put the spotlight on possible Chinese spies of this nature operating around the world.
Faizal feels that acts of espionage will increase as geopolitical tensions rise in the Asia pacific.
“China has stepped up its cyber-espionage activities in the region ever since it became more assertive in its claims on the South China Sea and doubled down on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Regional countries are trying to carefully navigate the US-China rivalry but some quarters in the West may misconstrue this as choosing sides,” he said.
Elaine Pearson, a human rights activist in Australia who was at the centre of the controversy for her views in the article published by UNSW and her tweets on human rights in Hong Kong, in her commentary for the Sydney Morning Herald narrates the experience of a 23-year-old UNSW law student from China who spoke to Human Rights Watch:
“I wanted to study abroad to have a way of life so I’m not afraid to share my opinion. In our law department, there are a lot of students who share the same opinion as me, but they are too afraid to speak out, they are afraid of retaliation … If you protest against the CCP abroad they will find people you love and hurt them to make you pay.”
“This fear is real. Human Rights Watch has documented that families in China have been harassed and questioned because of the activities of their relatives in Australia. Students from China are watching to see how UNSW responds to the pro-CCP students’ threats. “
Pearson further says that the new portal established by the CCP, which is also accessible in Australia, allows allegations to be made against dissidents for “attacking the party, the state system and major policies,” endangering national security, harming the national image and slandering heroes.
As soon as the initial article by UNSW went online, the CCP nationalists which include Chinese citizens and students living in Australia immediately mobilized their response via social media – mainly WeChat platforms to plot a strong response to the UNSW article.
At the same time, the Chinese consulate activated its proxies to launch online campaigns targeting the UNSW.
Many Chinese students from UNSW sent out e-mails to the UNSW management to bring down the article and how it was very insensitive of the university to interfere and comment on China’s internal affairs.
CCP patriots targeted the Instagram and twitter feeds of UNSW asking the board to take down the article; this was given an official voice by Global Times which immediately published an article on the incident.
For reasons unknown, the university buckled under pressure and transferred the article from the main page to another subsection and removed the tweets of Elaine Pearson.
Elaine Pearson reacted strongly on Twitter by seeking clarifications from UNSW: “I am seeking clarification from UNSW on what occurred. I hope UNSW will reaffirm its protection of academic freedom and make it clear that academic freedom does not mean caving to censorship demands by some people over views they disagree with.”
“Safeguarding the human rights of Hong Kong people is not something that should be controversial.”
“The Human Rights Watch has long documented concerns about Chinese government threats to academic freedom at universities around the world, including Australia. All Australian universities should be taking this seriously.”
Subsequently, the UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs apologized for the entire incident, especially for removing the tweets of Elaine Pearson. But there have been no reasons attributed to the removal of the tweets yet.
UNSW is said to have released two different sets of letters of apology, one in Mandarin to the Chinese students and the Chinese community and the other one in English to the general public. Interestingly, the contents of the letters have been found to carry slightly different messages based on the audience.
The letter to the Chinese community and students totally dissociates the article and the views expressed in the same from that of the universities and apologies to the Chinese community if the events had hurt their sentiments. Whereas, the English letter had a different tone as it talks about freedom of expression and speech prevalent in Australia and at UNSW and that the university will not take a stand on political issues.