Clive Hamilton has written a new book about China and the shadow it casts over Australia. Chinese official media have condemned it and feature an image of the book, clearly about to be flushed down the toilet. If you don't like a point of view, most agree that it's best to ignore it. A controversy is sure to stir interest and excite debate. And the media like controversy. Good news for any author!
There has been concern for some time about the "Chinese Dream" of making China a world power whose influence extends to Africa, the Maldives, the "South China Sea", and ports around the world including that of Darwin. What are some of the issues about the Chinese and their influence in Australia? Let's look at just a few of them raised by recent events, including Hamilton's book.
First, China presents itself as a peaceful country eager to get on with others. But when accused of subversion, its anger is reflected in this official statement reacting to Hamilton's book:
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in December that China strongly urges relevant people in Australia to shake off Cold War mentality and bias against China and immediately stop uttering false remarks that undermine mutual political trust and beneficial cooperation.
Oh yes, the usual habit of "you're not doing what we want, so you must be bad". What next? Already, anyone criticising China and its policies will be accused of Sinophobia and moral panic and all the rest of it. Did the Chinese never hear the saying, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks"? Why complain, if people aren't likely to be convinced by the argument that Chinese influence is hostile to our interests? If the book was not well-researched, or it were full of false accusations, academic scrutiny and public debate would shoot it down. That hasn't happened: it's apparently selling well.
Second, there has been some unease about the penetration of Chinese official views into our universities. There has been animated discussion on The Conversation and elsewhere about ACRI, the China-Australia study centre at UTS in Sydney. While some say it is useful to have pro-Chinese views expressed, others say that it presents only a narrow pro-government view of China. Hamilton's book has a whole chapter on Bob Carr and the study centre, raising many worthwhile issues including: Who chooses senior staff? Where is the real academically-tested research? Similar concerns have been raised about other centres in universities in Australia and overseas. Some have been shut down.
We heard this week that Chinese students are now some 43 per cent of international students in Australian universities. At Sydney University, overseas student fees rose 92 per cent in three years from $391 million in 2014 to $752 million last year. Considering the rise and huge proportion of Chinese, Hamilton says overdependence on Chinese students is "corroding the soul of our universities". There have been Foreign Affairs and Trade Departmental warnings about interference from overseas governments, and concern about Chinese students complaining of academics who are not sufficiently enthusiastic about China's policies. Academic freedom must be respected, said a spokesperson; so must scrutiny of China. But can academic freedom survive the challenge when foreign students bring in large university fees? Stories in Hamilton's book suggest – not at all. In any case, the risks to our universities of being financially dependent on the demands of any foreign power are worrying. The risk to standards from students with imperfect English and a poor grasp of western ideas of honesty and plagiarism are something else again. But to paraphrase Paul Keating: never try to stand between a vice chancellor and a bucket of money.
Third, are we to believe that the Chinese students are all here because of the high international standing of our universities? Really? University friends suggest that many are really here to get permanent residency. A typical story seems to run: "First my daughter gets a PhD. Then she gets PR. Then she brings her family". I found out for myself when at one university teaching English as a second language. I asked 'What will you do next year?' And the room fell into a tense silence. Apparently, many do one course after another to stay and somehow find a way of settling here.
Fourth, Chinese students are over-represented in selective schools. These are schools in New South Wales for which pupils sit an entry test. And they get excellent results in school leaving exams. The uneven racial composition of these schools is a powder keg. Clearly, anyone who mentions this fact will be accused of racism. And so the issue continues to fester.
Fifth, loopholes in our rules mean that Chinese students arrive and start buying land. In Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Wagga - the list goes on. What the Chinese want most is land. Australian politicians don't care: on average they own more than one house.
Pity help the young Australians trying to compete with all this, and buy a house for themselves. Do governments care? Yes, they say they do, but in reality? I doubt it.
And finally: Chinese money is influencing politicians.
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