Australia strengthens university defenses against Chinese communist hand

World | 28 Aug 2019 3:25 pm

Concerns that groups supporting the Chinese Communist Party have infiltrated pro-democracy movements on Australian university campuses have prompted the creation of a new taskforce, ABC news reports.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the new measure, which he said would be a collaboration between government, security agencies and the university sector.

He said it would have a wide-ranging role in looking at foreign interference in the education sector, from assessing cybersecurity to the theft of research and intellectual property.

Tehan said he was concerned at recent reports that information about pro-democracy students had been collected during protests about China.

"One of the things that the taskforce will be doing will be looking at security on our university campuses, to make sure that students can go about their business freely, and be able to express their views freely," he said.

Punches were thrown at the University of Queensland last month as students clashed over their views on China and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Videos posted on social media showed shouting and abuse that turned to violence, with the four-hour standoff ending when police convinced both groups to go home

Government backbenchers have warned that universities are too reliant on international students and are not doing enough to combat China's influence.

Those comments followed 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.

The taskforce's creation also comes after China was linked to a massive data hack at the Australian National University, which accessed personal details of staff and students dating back 19 years.

Australian universities will receive extra support to contain foreign interference in their institutions and research projects.

Tehan said while Australia had strong research partnerships with countries such as China, he feared universities were at risk of becoming complacent about the threats they faced.

"What we've got to understand is that occasionally what people will be looking to do, or what countries may be looking to do, is look at our intellectual property and then use it for their particular means, rather than for the greater global good or for the good of Australia," he said.

In June, the Australian National University said hackers had in 2018 breached its cyber defenses to obtain sensitive data, including students' bank account numbers and passport details, going back 19 years. Australia has not identified the culprits behind that attack.

The task-force would also ensure academic research and students are free from any undue influence, Tehan said.

This month, Australia's most populous state said it was scrapping a Chinese-funded education program that teaches Putonghua in several university amid fears of foreign influence.

Relations between Australia and China have been strained in recent years over Australian fears of Chinese activity, both in Australia and the Pacific region.

A report last week said at least seven of Australia's major universities rely heavily on Chinese international students for revenue and that is putting the institutions at risk of financial collapse.

The libertarian think tank the Centre for Independent Studies  said that the financial risk of the universities' reliance on China ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, with Chinese student course fees accounting for between 13 and 23 per cent of their total revenues, SBS reported. 

The author of the report, Salvatore Babones, told SBS News the problem wasn't that the students were Chinese, but that "there is so many of them.''

"It's healthy to have foreign students, the problem is when you have so many foreign students that you depend on them for your financial survival," he said.

The report found that approximately 10 per cent of all students currently at an Australian university come from China, compared to international students more broadly, which account for 25 per cent.

"At the University of Sydney, for example, Chinese students make up one out of every 10 students. That's just an extraordinary number to have at one university," Dr Babones said.-ABC News/Reuters/SBS. Photo: ABC News 



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