One of the better Chinese proverbs goes like this: “Kill a chicken to frighten the monkeys.”

It needs little explanation and applies very much to the case of Australian resident and highly regarded China scholar Feng Chongyi, a Chinese citizen with an Australian wife and daughter who was held extra-judiciously in the southern city of Guangzhou for a week until his release.

Feng’s “crime”, in the eyes of China’s increasingly repressive Communist Party regime, has been to critique the CCP and its polices — in particular, focusing on the crushing of the Weiquan, the mainly Beijing-based coterie of brave human rights lawyers, many of whom are now incarcerated for speaking truth to power.

The crushingly heavy hand of the CPP was certainly deployed in Feng’s (the chicken) case to “remind” other academics (the monkeys) not to mess with the party and its increasingly repressive policies; to self-censor, to bury their ethical duty to seek the truth. It is an authoritarian dictatorship attempting to silence critics. 

Recently, there has been a raft of criminal cases involving Australian citizens, from Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu (still incarcerated) to Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou in Guangzhou. Feng’s detention, which made bigger headlines across the world than it did in Australia, is also completely of a piece with the multi-pronged stepping-up of already crushing censorship/repression of thought under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

One of these prongs is the increasingly censorious rules on all universities inside China — institutions that Xi has called to become strongholds of the CCP and with which so many of Australia’s own universities have increasingly strong links.

Much of this comes under the even broader umbrella of China’s multibillion-dollar global soft-power push, which works in sometimes heavy-handed — but arguably effective — ways, like in Feng’s case, and other times in much more insidious ways.

[James Packer’s dilemma: try to save Crown staff in China, or let the chips fall where they may?]

China has creeping influence in Australian universities. Its state-sponsored Confucius Institutes (CIs) have proliferated in recent years and are embedded in most top-tier unis as well as in a range of second- and third-tier institutions. Confucius Institutes are, on the surface, relatively benign, but some universities in Europe and the United States are unwinding their CI relationships, believing that this is not necessarily the case.

More overtly, wealthy Chinese donors — and, to be clear, one does not get to be a billionaire, or within cooee of that status in China, without having the requisite party connections — pump a lot of money into Australian universities. Feng’s Australian employer, the University of Technology, Sydney, is a prime case in point. Its latest building — the crumpled paper bag landmark in Ultimo, designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry — was funded by Chau Chak Wing, a Guangzhou magnate who controls much of the largely pro-Beijing Chinese-language press in Australia and is known to be litigious towards Australian media. Chau has duchessed a generation of Australian politicians, from John Howard to Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, as well as senior Australian journalists and commentators including the Australian Financial Review’s Jennifer Hewett and Sky News chief Angelos Frangopoulos, at his ranch and conference centre outside Guangzhou.

More recently, Chau has bequeathed $15 million to a museum at the University of Sydney, which will also bear his name.

A rival Guangzhou businessma, shovelled millions of dollars into the creation of UTS’ controversially pro-Beijing Australia-China Relations Institute, which is chaired by former foreign minister Bob Carr.

Australia’s universities are also increasingly reliant on international student fees, largely from Asia, with China, once again, at the head of the queue. The latest federal Education Department figures show that there were 554,179 full fee-paying international students in 2016, an increase of more than 10% on the previous year. More than one-quarter of these are from China, and many are the children of senior CCP officials. Chinese students make up as much as 20% of the cohort at some institutions.

Many Australian universities run joint courses with Chinese universities. All tertiary institutions in China are subject to local rules and regulations, which include the compulsory teaching of Marxist-Leninist ideology and where dissenting voices are systematically being silenced. But we have not heard one peep from Australia’s universities about this, and to the best of Crikey’s knowledge, the campaign of censorship and crimping of academic freedom has not triggered any so far to pull up stumps in the Middle Kingdom (but we are happy to be corrected).

To cap it all off — and when you think about it, this is a huge win for China — Bob Carr, via a piece by veteran News Corp press gallery staffer Malcolm Farr, has taken credit for Feng being finally allowed home.

[The problem with our over-reliance on Chinese tourism]

Another story by The Australian’s Troy Bramston (which named “Julia” Bishop as the Australian Foreign Minister) also delivered a China lecture from Carr: “But China is not going to change its system because of lecture­s from foreigners. ­Meanwhile, we have got to deal with China as it is.”

Farr and Bramston were two of four journalists on an all-expenses-paid junket with Carr to China during the week that Feng was detained, without any sense of when he would be released. Rather than add his signature to a an open letter from the world’s leading China scholars, Carr said he would make “private representations”. Crikey has learned, in no uncertain terms, that Carr had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Carr’s outpourings gilded the lie that says if you are “friends” with China, you can help “fix things” — a big win for China’s university investments and soft power. But you have to wonder if Stern Hu and Feng Chonyi would agree.

Peter Fray

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