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The Chinese incursion into universities

Adelaide
Students protest against the establishment of a Confucius Institute at University of Adelaide

ALBERT SCHRAM
| Edited extract

Link here to read Dr Schram’s complete essay, ‘China and the West: institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and student movements in the Pacific’

VERONA - In Papua New Guinea for a total of six years I was vice-chancellor of the PNG University of Technology (Unitech) in Lae, the second largest and second oldest university in the country.

As prescribed in the university acts, I was ex-officio member of the councils of both my own university and the country’s oldest and largest university, the University of PNG.

In 2014, I became aware of the pressure on UPNG to open a Confucius Institute. At the time there was much confusion in the UPNG council about this, believing it may be somehow harmful to the Christian nature of the country.

At Unitech things started innocently enough, with the Chinese asking us if some of our civil engineering students could work with them on a nearby road-building project.

With few such opportunities available, I followed the advice of the head of the department and signed an agreement with them. For Christmas, to my surprise, I received a bottle of whiskey, which I was allowed to accept under the university’s gift policy.

In 2016, in the run-up to the 2017 elections, national politicians had given money and arms to student groups from different tribes and used students to fight their proxy battles. In the ensuing fights on campus, four buildings were burned down.

In 2017, I decided to reach out to the Chinese in an effort to transparently establish a Confucius Institute on campus.

At the time, after the recession and famine of 2014-15, the government of PNG was not providing all of its monthly grants for operational expenses.

In addition, we needed funds for infrastructure and my hope was that, following an established process with the Chinese, we could get some initial investment on campus.

The university council had approved a campus development plan and established an open and transparent expression of interest process. The rules for granting a contract were clearly stipulated, and, to assure probity, all negotiations were disclosed to the council.

I was told that the procedure to establish a Confucius Institute was to host a visit of a Chinese delegation and then follow through with a visit to China.

I was asked to meet a representative of a communist party-controlled construction company in Port Moresby.

After I agreed to this meeting, a Chinese delegation decided to visit the Unitech deputy vice-chancellor on campus.

Clearly, I had already been categorised as too law-abiding, and I was never told what was transpired at this meeting.

Although the Confucius Institute program headquarters is in Beijing, in practical terms the first step from the Chinese side was to receive a visit and sign an agreement with a sponsor Chinese university.

Then a Chinese director of the future Confucius Institute is selected and trained. All training happens at Chongqing Normal University in Sichuan province in China.

When I met this university’s president, he quickly verified with me that Western university presidents serve terms of three or four years limited to a maximum of two terms.

Since I was in the second half of my second term, he expressed scorn for these strange western practices and basically ignored me from that moment onwards.

Clearly, the deputy vice-chancellor had been earmarked as the preferred contact, although formally I needed to sign the agreement.

Later I became aware that, under the table, members of the management team and council were offered trips to China for health reasons or simply for shopping.

In the Chinese approach to Unitech, the Confucius Institute process was central but was followed quickly by offers to invest, each step ‘greased’ by gifts or outright bribes.

There is little doubt in my mind, that my refusal to let Chinese construction companies bypass the decisions of the university council, my decision to stay with Cisco routers instead of Huawei and my independence and failure to react when bribes were offered, meant the Chinese saw me as an inconvenience.

Conversely, the eagerness with which council members, the deputy vice-chancellor and pro-vice chancellors reacted to Chinese overtures meant that alternative prospects were easily found.

Regrettably, many of us in the West take university autonomy and academic freedom for granted, because we have never dealt with issues like these.

In the wake of China’s aggressive foreign policy, the West must stand up for sovereignty, individual liberty and rights, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.

Too often the argument that ‘China is different’ is utilised to justify its crude power politics.

Western-style universities in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to the Chinese Communist Party’s corrupting influence because of structural underfunding and the constant growth of the student population. 

A strong position must be adopted that Western aid will only be forthcoming if human rights, freedom of inquiry, academic freedom and university autonomy are respected, and not sacrificed to the pressures of the CCP.

In the history of the frail democracies of the Pacific region, student movements have been fundamental to uphold democratic and core higher education values.

Regrettably today, it is governments giving in to Chinese pressures that have sidelined and muzzled the voice of the students.

Moreover, governments have gained control over university appointments and governance, often in blatant disregard of university statutes and acts.

Agents of the Chinese Communist Party have been highly successful in leaning on governments to push out independent university administrators, taking advantage of weak institutions and a high level of corruption in many of these countries.

The CCP has encouraged curtailment of freedom of student and academic expression.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, all student movements at universities were silenced in the run-up to the APEC meeting of 2018 in Port Moresby, which was accompanied by lavish Chinese loans for the building of roads, conference centres and other infrastructure.

In the run-up to the meeting, two foreign vice-chancellors were exposed to baseless allegations, harassed by police, threatened and made to leave the country.

In the Pacific and other regions, university autonomy and academic freedom have been eliminated.

HK_messageIn Europe, if we understand the strategy and tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party, we can still act together to prevent its undue influence on our universities.

Only in autonomous universities where academic freedom is cherished, democracy can thrive and backsliding and totalitarian temptations are resisted.

As the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) students wrote: "Be aware or be next”.

Derived from a lecture delivered at the 'Scholars at Risk' seminar, part of the Italy Speaker Series, on 11 December 2020

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