China is an ethnonationalist, corporatist, authoritarian state. The government harasses, imprisons, or murders those who demand the right to vote. It engages in cultural genocide and seeks to make the Chinese dictatorship ideologically inseparable from the self-image of the Chinese people. It protects its domestic economy from foreign competition, subsidises all its important industries, mandates that government officials sit on the boards of all large companies, and does not allow independent labour unions.
China scholars from Western universities require access to Chinese sources and travel visas. In order to secure interviews or travel permits, they must not write anything the Chinese government dislikes. To be critical of the Chinese government’s stance on Taiwan is to be blacklisted. To speak out against China’s treatment of the Uighurs, Falun Gong, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, trade, technology theft, or espionage is dangerous academic territory.
The corporatisation of Australian universities has also made them vulnerable to implicit threats of Chinese sanctions. The commodity at stake is student fees because China can control how many students it will allow to leave the country to study at a foreign institution.
In this way, the Chinese students provide something priceless to the cultivation of China’s national image—they make the regime appear to be popular at home. Ask a Chinese student (from the mainland) in public whether or not they approve of Chinese government policies, and you’re likely to get either a nervous and uncertain reply, and possibly a question about why a Westerner cares about Chinese affairs, or you’ll be provided with a vigorous defence of China’s reputation. This isn’t accidental. This is a product of deliberate, well considered policies, crafted by a dictatorship to subvert countervailing foreign policy initiatives.
Students need to have family at home, good “social credit” scores, and it is best if they have family members who work for the Party.
Not content with the influence they have acquired over academics and students, the Chinese government decided to back the creation of “Confucius Institutes” in Western universities. These universities use the ancient name of a Chinese cultural icon but their role is to disseminate modern propaganda.
China’s government teaches its people that all dissent against its policies is ultimately directed towards the breakup of the country, and the protest served that narrative perfectly.