Australian universities earn billions of dollars from thousands of Chinese students that flock to the country every year. However, there is now a fear among many Australians that such an arrangement may be compromising their academic independence as well as national security. ABC’s Four Corners program recently exposed the seriousness of the matter.
Alex Joske, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, revealed that a professor at the University of Queensland ended up using US$2.6 million in taxpayer money to set up a tech company in China that produced tools to monitor and oppress Uyghur minorities. The University of Canberra apparently has over 30 joint projects with defense universities from China. The university even trained a Chinese student who went back to China, joined the PLA, and currently heads the military’s drone swarm program.
The rise of pro-Beijing student groups is also raising fears that this gives Beijing an opportunity to introduce their ideologies into Australian universities. One such student group is called the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which has a presence in most campuses. Incorporation documents of the CSSA state that its mission is “to assist the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China” and to “facilitate the connection between the Embassy and the Chinese students and scholars.”
The board also communicates regularly with the Embassy. The documents also say that all Chinese students and scholars automatically become coordinating members. “I think universities have a really serious issue on their hands that they’ve let groups like the XXXX grow and expand on campuses, build their influence, build their resourcing,” Joske says in the program. This essentially gives Beijing control over the life of Chinese students even when they are out of the country.
Beijing-backed entity GTCOM (Global Tone Communication) has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the University of New South Wales. GTCOM, which is involved in data mining, will be testing its technology in association with the university. The company already has the capability of mining data at 16,000 words per second in about 65 languages. According to analyst Samantha Hoffman, GTCOM is aiming to use its technology to collect intelligence, aid the military, and strengthen the Social Credit System.
“They describe their activity as cross-language big data collection… And so essentially what they’re doing is they’re collecting bulk data globally, and then turning that into… information that supports multiple different products. According to their own claims, the data they’re collecting supports state security. And so, immediately that raises red flags,” she said to ABC.
GTCOM has collaborations with Huawei, whom the Australian government has banned from supplying 5G equipment. It also partners with a company called Haiyun Data, which has been involved in surveillance activities against the persecuted Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
Concerned with the rising Chinese influence in universities, the Australian government set up a task force in August to investigate the matter. After consulting with intelligence agencies and other key organizations, the administration has unveiled a new set of guidelines for universities that enter into partnerships with Chinese institutions.
“The new code will require institutions to share cyber-intelligence with national security agencies, identify foreign research partners and disclose financial dealings with other countries. Foreign financial declarations will be noted on the same register that Australian lobbyists working for foreign countries use to declare themselves foreign agents. There will also be tougher requirements for universities when collaborating with foreign countries on research,” according to the BBC.
Dan Tehan, the Minister of Education, hopes that the measures will ensure necessary protections for students, academic integrity, and research data. In September, the University of Technology Sydney had canceled a joint research project with a Chinese corporation after it found that one of the subsidiaries of the entity had developed an app used to track Uyghurs. Last year, Australia had passed the anti-foreign interference laws in a bid to control Beijing’s influence in the country.