Australian universities are not doing enough to combat the influence of China’s ruling Communist Party, a group of Federal Government backbenchers has warned.
The comments follow recent pro-Beijing rallies staged in several Australian cities against Hong Kong’s democracy movement — rallies which were praised by Chinese Government-controlled media— and come just days after Liberal MP Andrew Hastie warned about China’s activities.
Fellow Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who also sits on Parliament’s powerful Intelligence Committee, said there was strong potential for foreign interference on Australian campuses to shut down various views.
“Many MPs have a concern about Australian university campuses and whether they’re both a bastion for free speech, which they need to be, but more critically the role that foreign influences like the Confucius Institutes are having — any influence over curriculum and of course the influence of foreign governments on protests,” Mr Wilson told ABC Radio.
“What we know is that around the world the influence of embassies and consulates from foreign governments can sometimes be an influence for domestic protests and we have to make sure that isn’t occurring.”
Queensland LNP senator Amanda Stoker said she believed universities were battling through a “crisis of leadership” on foreign influence.
“[There is a] reluctance in their administrations to defend the rights of non-CCP [Chinese Communist Party]-aligned students who dare to speak out against Beijing,” she said.
“It is legitimate to ask questions about how China came to have so much influence in these institutions.”
Government taking foreign interference ‘incredibly seriously’
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan played down suggestions of a leadership crisis among universities, insisting the Government was taking foreign interference “incredibly seriously”.
“These are issues that have emerged over the last few years, they are ones which require careful consideration,” Mr Tehan told Sky News.
“But I must say, the engagement I have had with the sector, they understand how important this is that we get it right.”
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the issue should be dealt with by the Government executive rather than outspoken backbenchers.
“We in Australia do support freedom of speech and we also support a right of peaceful protest,” she told ABC’s Insiders.
“We would expect people in Australia are entitled to exercise those rights if they do so peacefully and that they are free from intimidation.”
Senator Wong said Labor would request urgent briefings about the relationship on China from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence to help inform public debate.
“I think we’re at the point where the relationship is more complex, also more consequential,” she said.
“It matters to us and we should have a much more sensible and mature discussion about how we make it work for us.”