A recent edition of the University of Sydney’s student newspaper Honi Soit included articles that no one could mistake for conservative.
There was a “queer, anti-capitalist love letter” to the video game Stardew Valley and another taking aim at Western museums which, the article opined, are “irrevocably entrenched in imperialism, European supremacy and colonial violence”.
But there was also an investigation of two Sydney University academics who, according to the student newspaper, had not fully disclosed connections to Chinese talent recruitment programs.
The reaction from other students was swift. They accused the piece of implicitly suggesting the academics were risking national security and “reeking of McCarthyism 2.0” amid rising fears of Sinophobia. Hours later, Honi Soit’s editors took down the piece and posted an apology.
It is the latest in a string of incidents involving competing claims about free speech, racism and China on Australian university campuses as they emerge from their coronavirus hiatus.
Major universities have long been accused of depending too heavily on the hefty fees paid by Chinese international students, who make up nearly a quarter of the student population on some campuses.
Academics’ links to China through Communist Party-controlled talent programs are also under the spotlight of a federal parliamentary inquiry examining foreign interference at Australian universities.
The treatment of China in lecture halls, at campus events and even in the pages of student newspapers is therefore highly sensitive, and the Honi Soit incident illustrates the hyper-charged atmosphere surrounding Australia’s largest trading partner and greatest geopolitical challenge.
When the newspaper removed the story from its website, it prompted a fierce response from critics of the Chinese Communist Party on campus, who accused the student editors of capitulating to CCP influence and abandoning free speech.
And when the incident was reported by The Sun-Herald, it led to similar criticism from five federal MPs including Education Minister Alan Tudge.
“Left activists have forgotten what freedom of speech means in an era of woke culture,” said Mr Tudge, who had not read the article. “Certainly any claims that it was taken down to appease the Chinese Communist Party are deeply concerning.”
Mr Tudge’s decision to jump on a small-time controversy at a student paper was hardly surprising. Just last month the government passed new laws protecting free speech at universities, despite a government commissioned review finding in 2019 there was no free speech crisis.
A series of incidents shows how the rancorous state of the debate has raised the stakes when students try to discuss China, made it harder for them to apologise for mistakes and created a sense of panic at sometimes modest backlashes that can lead to hasty and censorious decisions.
In Melbourne, a student newsletter published an anonymous opinion piece calling for Chinese international students to be excluded from the university and at the ANU, an independent gallery on campus took down a series of works dealing with the coronavirus and the Chinese Communist Party.
In late March, Ambush Gallery took down an artwork that depicted Batman on Chinese currency.
In a jab at dubious theories COVID-19 jumped directly from bats to people, the work was captioned: “A shout out to the man that ate the bat in a Wuhan wet market that stopped the f—ing world (which probably didn’t happen).”
Several Chinese students visiting the gallery told staff they saw it was feeding “negative racial narratives”, according to an Ambush spokeswoman, in concerns backed up by the ANU International Students’ Department, a campus student association.
The artist, who goes by E.L.K, received online abuse over his work and agreed to have the bat image removed from display. Two others – one a commentary on CCP repression with Chairman Mao under the gaze of facial recognition technology and a second referencing the treatment of Uighurs through a visual rhyme – were also taken down without E.L.K’s permission.
Critics of the Chinese Communist Party once again cried censorship.
But in that case and the Honi Soit debacle, there was no apparent drive to appease the Communist Party. Instead, panic at a potential larger “cancel culture”-style backlash, which never really came, seems to have led to a counterproductive overreaction from people not used to dealing with the intensity of debates about China and race.
An Ambush Gallery spokeswoman said the two works were removed “not because of pressure to silence any freedom of speech, but because we just acted quickly and took down the series without thinking more broadly about how that might be perceived,” she said.
These incidents are awkward for the universities, which are trying to show they understand government concerns about Communist Party influence and free speech. Some have gone so far as to engage John Garnaut – a former journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age who became a senior adviser to Malcolm Turnbull and led the government’s 2017 foreign interference review – to audit their connections with China.
In statements, the ANU, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney variously emphasised that the campus institutions in this article were independent, that they valued free speech, monitored foreign interference risks and welcomed international collaboration and students.
The 10 Honi Soit student editors, battered by a week of criticism from both sides of politics, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But others who spoke on and off the record described the criticism as coming mainly from former editors of the same newspaper who wanted to register their concerns with a piece they saw as poor journalism that undermined the paper’s left-wing tradition.
Lei Yao, who edited Honi Soit in 2020, says she thought she was the only international student to criticise the piece publicly. “I don’t agree with the opinion of this article at all, which doesn’t mean they [the current editors] don’t have freedom of speech anyway,” Ms Yao says. “But to name professors and humiliate them on [a] media platform is totally out of line.”
Feedback from Yao and others led the editors to pull the piece, which was not something all of those commenting had intended. Some had predicted correctly that removing it would only drive more attention (including from the Herald and The Age) to the piece.
“Moving forward, we will ensure that we are always critical of the sources on which we rely and we recognise our duty as student journalists to actively combat Western imperialist and xenophobic biases present in mainstream media,” the editors’ apology read. Later, in a statement, they added: “We maintain that nothing in the article was incorrect.”
Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at the left-wing think tank Per Capita, says the Honi article had gone too far by naming the academics without evidence of wrongdoing or a response from them, especially against a background of concern from Asian Australians about rising racism.
But Chiu says he had sympathy for the young editors. “It’s difficult for people who have been around [the issues] for the last 20 years to navigate, let alone people who are barely in adulthood.”
The highfalutin nature of their apology gave the government a predictable “free kick”, Chiu says.
Whether anti-Asian racism is on the rise is difficult to measure empirically, but there is some data. Last year, a report co-authored by Chiu along with the Asian Australian Alliance documented 377 incidents of racism, such as slurs and name-calling, against Asians in Australia over a two month period from April last year.
In the United States, a similar survey from the Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate campaign found 3795 incidents of racism from March last year to February. High profile incidents, such as the shooting deaths of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at massage parlours in the US state of Georgia last month have heightened the atmosphere.
“I think we should be careful not to import the American experience to Australia,” says Associate Professor Salvatore Babones. He is a sociologist at the University of Sydney with a research interest in China and assisted Honi with background information for its story.
“The Chinese government however would have us believe that Australia is a hive of anti-Chinese racism,” Babones says. “That’s simply not true but it does suit the Chinese government’s political narrative to promote this idea.”
However “I think free speech is absolutely secure at the University of Sydney,” Babones said. “This editorial decision doesn’t change my mind on that, as far as I can see this was a voluntary decision motivated by the editors’ concerns about anti-Chinese violence.
“I disagree with those concerns, but I respect them.”
At the University of Melbourne, the unofficial law school newspaper De Minimis managed a similar controversy quite differently. In mid-March it carried an anonymous opinion piece from an Asian student calling for the university to exclude Chinese international students and stop co-operating with Chinese universities.
The student likened the moves to boycotts of apartheid South Africa and claimed they were justified on the basis that China was committing “genocide” against the Uighur minority.
That article, published with a counterpoint from the Melbourne China Law Society and a disclaimer it did not represent the views of the editors, stayed online. There, the backlash came from Chinese students furious at the “discriminatory” piece who voiced their concerns to the ABC last week, again anonymously.
De Minimis editor-in-chief Max Ferguson, who is half Chinese, says the magazine’s rules required it to publish most things submitted by a student. He was equinaminous about the criticism.
“Most people I’ve spoken with in my personal life have been quite supportive of our decision to publish, inasmuch as it was a decision at all, at least our right to publish,” Ferguson says. “There are some people who were upset, but they are mostly restricted to complaining in the comment section, which we welcome in that it’s their right to offer their opinion.”
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