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Spies at Sydney Uni: Really?

Georgia Behrens dug into that sensationalist SMH headline.

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Last Monday, the front page of TheSydney Morning Herald enthusiastically proclaimed the discovery of “Chinese spies at Sydney University”. In the report that sat beneath this McCarthy-esque headline, The SMH’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Garnaut, claimed that China was in the process of building “large covert informant networks inside Australia’s leading universities”. Not particularly convinced by the claim that the international students in my lectures and tutorials were, in fact, Chinese spies, I set out to investigate.

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First up, let me quite confidently say that it seems incredibly unlikely that Chinese international students at Sydney University are compromising Australian national security in between finishing their readings. John Fitzgerald, a Professor of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University and expert on Chinese-Australian communities, says that it is important to distinguish between espionage (of the variety suggested in the The SMH’s somewhat sensationalist headline), and what he terms the “social surveillance” system occurring in amongst Chinese expatriates in Australia. He analogises this system to that of the East German Stasi, in which government officials encouraged citizens to engage in an ongoing form of “neighbourhood watch”.

“We’re not talking about paid agents or informants here; they’re just people who share the values of those people doing the monitoring, and who feel a strong degree of loyalty to the Embassy and the government,” he says.

According to Fitzgerald, most information would be acquired from informal conversations held “over a cup of tea at the Embassy”, and not from formal reports. Any expedient information that may arise is then collated, filed, and passed along to authorities in the intelligence system back in China.

The nature of the information sought by the government is wide-ranging. In one incident recounted to me by an international student at USyd, an anti-corruption investigation in China was given evidence from Australia about a number of expensive sports cars a Chinese student studying in Sydney had been driving to university. The information was used to support claims of corruption made by the Chinese government against the student’s parents.

Of the greatest concern to the majority of Chinese expatriates, however, is the government’s tendency to monitor and reprimand its citizens for any involvement in controversial political causes such as the Tibetan independence movement. If you get involved in such an issue, Chinese international students tell me, either you or your family residing in China may be invited to “drink tea” with police to discuss your recent activities.

“You’ll be asked to visit the police station to answer some questions,” one student tells me. “They will hardly ever make proper threats or try to really intimidate you; it will be something more along the lines of, ‘If you keep going down this path, you’re going to cause yourself some problems, so you should think twice about it next time.’ That’s really all that most people need to hear.”

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The existence of citizen-based informant networks in Australia is, of course, contingent upon the ongoing loyalty of Chinese expatriates to their government. At USyd, the Chinese government appears to be taking a range of steps to ensure the enduring goodwill of Chinese-born international students now residing in Australia. Perhaps most significant is its extensive, hands-on involvement with one of the largest Chinese student associations on campus, the Sydney University Chinese Students’ Association (SUCSA). The organisation, which is part of the University of Sydney Union’s Clubs & Societies program, states on its website that one of its key aims is to “help the Education Office of [the] Chinese Embassy to organise all forms of activities relate [sic] to Chinese students”.

According to various SUCSA members, the society is run in ongoing consultation with the Chinese embassy, which also provides funding, venues, and distinguished guests for many of the society’s events. SUCSA’s annual Welcome Drinks, for example, are traditionally attended by the Chinese Ambassador, and special events are often organised to coincide with visits to Australia by Chinese dignitaries. One student recounts receiving multiple phone calls from the society’s executive prior to such events, reminding him that it was “highly recommended” that he attend.

“Honestly, though, most of the things that SUCSA organises are just fun and innocuous – movie nights and dinners and that sort of thing,” he continues. “But they still keep students engaged with the Embassy in some way, which means that they’re much more likely to respond if the Embassy ever needs something from them.”

I ask what sort of things the Embassy could possibly need from Sydney University students.

“Basically they like to be able to organise the student community to act as a platform to express their own views on things,” he says. “They want it to seem as though they have broad popular support for all their policies, so they try to get international students to act as something like permanent goodwill ambassadors.”

According to SUCSA members, the Embassy has previously organised groups of USyd students to welcome foreign dignitaries from overseas, and to stage “counter-protests” on issues like the Tibetan independence movement and designated “heretic organisation” Falun Gong.

Do my sources think it’s possible that the Embassy is also asking these students to report on their fellows at Sydney University?

“I don’t think they would be asking that openly, no. But I think that some people would think they should mention things they might have heard about someone who they thought was doing something dangerous. I can definitely see how it might come up.”

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The startling efficacy of the Chinese government’s efforts to control its expatriates is perhaps best indicated by the fact that not one of the dozen or so students I spoke with for this article is willing for their name to go in print. Each seems genuinely concerned that being cited, even in an amateur student publication, could have serious consequences for themselves or their families.

“I need to make sure that I’m completely anonymous because I still have family living in China,” one student tells me. “Please make sure that you don’t tell anyone that I talked to you for this article, I’m interested in working in the government in China one day and if anyone found out I might not be able to,” says another. Yet another student is so worried that she refuses to talk to me on the phone or over Skype for fear of the call being monitored.

Virtually all students cite ongoing rumours circulating within international student communities of people being interrogated after engaging with Chinese politics while overseas. These rumours, while vague, clearly serve as a powerful disincentive against any potential engagement with controversial Chinese political issues.

One international student discusses his extensive involvement in Australian politics, which includes working as a volunteer in last year’s federal election campaign.

“I feel very comfortable getting involved in Aussie politics because it’s safe. I wouldn’t be afraid of getting into trouble if [the party I supported] lost their campaign.”

But, he says, he would “never” consider engaging with political issues pertaining to China. This is in line with what he believes is a “general consensus” amongst international students; that it is dangerous to discuss these issues, even in private.

“And besides,” he says, “I feel like protesting things is kind of pointless…the Communist Party wouldn’t listen to you anyway.”

This, too, is a common sentiment amongst the students I speak with, who overwhelmingly indicate a total lack of interest in any form of political process. “In China, it’s not seen as a good thing for you to have political opinions,” one student tells me.

“You grow up constantly being told that people with strong political opinions are just trouble-makers. If you want to succeed, you should follow directions, be attentive, and carry out orders from your superiors to the best of your ability. That’s all you need to think about.”

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Deng Xiaoping, China’s late paramount leader, once said of the country’s ongoing economic and cultural reforms that when you open the window, sometimes the flies come in. For China, opening the window to the Western world has meant allowing more and more of its young citizens to explore and study in countries whose political and cultural configurations are vastly different from its own. Today, a Western tertiary education is a valued commodity in China, and students are actively encouraged to study in countries such as Australia and the US. But, based on my conversations with Chinese international students this week, it appears that this openness is still accompanied by extensive caveats. The Chinese government, it seems, is extremely wary of the flies its expatriate students may bring back through the window.