Australia has a conflicted relationship with China, we rely on their largesse while harbouring a little suspicion regarding their intentions.
A common trope is that Chinese influence is spreading within our universities and political life but whether that’s justified is yet to be determined.
What isn’t controversial is that in 2017 more than 600,000 Chinese headed abroad to university, four times the figure a decade earlier, bringing the number studying at that level outside China to nearly 1.5m.
The main destinations are English-speaking countries. Between 2006 and 2016 the number of Chinese students at universities there increased fivefold, to more than 320,000.
In Australia, moves to commercialise education has seen public universities increasingly reliant on foreign students who pay full fees.
However, the nationalism of Chinese students may not be as strong as suspected. In a paper last year, Alastair Iain Johnson of Harvard University said polling data from Beijing showed a decline in nationalism since about 2009. He also concluded that younger respondents were less nationalistic than older ones.
Fran Martin of the University of Melbourne has been tracking the responses of about 50 female Chinese students to their experiences in Australia since 2015. She is scornful of the idea that they are tools of their government, and describes their patriotism as “ambiguous”.
Some of the participants in her study told her they became more patriotic after arriving in Australia. But some students she has met also asked her about the unrest in 1989. “They were really receptive to hearing about it,” she says.
“They were clearly open to thinking it was wrong” of the party to crack down in the way it did.
Growing numbers of wealthy Chinese hope to secure a foothold overseas and think that sending a child to study there could help. A report in 2012 by Hurun, a Shanghai-based research firm, said that of 2.7m Chinese citizens who made over $1m a year, 85% intended to send their children abroad to be educated. The West, for all its failings, is seen as a safe haven both for their money and, if necessary, for themselves.
The nationalism displayed by Chinese students abroad – sometimes in the form of unquestioning support for their government’s policies – has been causing disquiet in the West. The suspicion is that students’ objections to views at variance with the Communist Party’s might stifle academic debate.
It’s also thought the party might attempt to tap into this nationalism through Chinese student organisations and mobilise such groups to protest against activities that the party dislikes.
At Durham University in England some Chinese students, and the Chinese embassy, protested against a debate titled “This House sees China as a threat to the West”, and the participation of a supporter of Falun Gong, a Chinese sect that was outlawed by the party nearly two decades ago.
But most Chinese students say they have little if any contact with their CSSA branches, and resist the suggestion that they might take political direction from them.
Most show pride in China’s economic growth, but some also express doubts about the way the party rules. Examples include its tight controls over the internet and Mr Xi’s recent scrapping of the two-term limit for the presidency. According to the New York Times, Chinese students at several university campuses in America put up posters protestingagainst Mr Xi’s decision.
Adapted from The Economist report Opening the Gates by James Miles
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