The recent, surging trend of nationalist Chinese students — who make up a whopping 30%, and counting, of Australia’s international student market — turning their attentions to teachers who offend Beijing’s doctored version of Chinese history is a potent illustration of what happens when an industry becomes reliant on a significant customer.

They are propping up the books in every Australian tertiary education of any note, in what is likely to soon become a textbook case study, and these students have begun to drive the behaviour of the industry.

Tertiary education has become Australia’s second single biggest export after minerals, metals and precious stones and is worth an estimated $19 billion each year.

Yet the education story is just the tip of the iceberg of a far-reaching, multi-generational story that is beginning to play out: the single biggest immigration challenge in Australia’s history as a nation.

Forget the boats. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people have flooded into Australia and gained permanent resident or citizenship off the regular visa and family reunion programs, but numbers have been supercharged by two wildly successful and lucrative commercial programs: international student enrolments and business migration visas.

On current trends, mainland China — currently there are more than 520,000 mainland Chinese people in Australia — will surpass New Zealand to be the No. 2 foreign country of origin for Australian residents, with only Great Britain ahead in the charts. The number of people of Chinese origin is well over 1 million and there are currently about 120,000 Chinese students studying in Australia. These people — not the handful of still desperate people rotting on Nauru or Manus Island — are the real economic migrants, trying to hold onto their very often ill-gotten gains as they flee Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, now abut to mark its fifth anniversary. Yet asylum seekers are derided as queue-jumpers by the same officials and politicians who welcome wealthy, corrupt Chinese with open arms. It’s enough to make you puke.

[Australia stuck in the middle of China’s latest attempt at ’empire-building’]

The money pouring into Australia comes out of China via student fees, apartment buying or a business migration visa fee of $5 million, for example. For the latter, huge licks of this money are not actually invested as stipulated by the Australian government’s rules. Rather, the cash is washed through myriad dodgy schemes that issue, say, a $5 million invoice for a $500,000 investment asset or good, giving the appearance the threshold has been met, with the remaining $4.5 million parked in the bank for the “business” immigrant to access as they please.

The serial business migration programs of the past two decades or so reviewed by new governments are then simply replaced by similar or near identical programs and are easily diddled by crooks and their enablers in the legal and accounting sector, due to Canberra’s near legendary inadequacies in either not understanding China or coming to the party, as it were, on issues like this only after the horse has bolted.

So, for the first time in the country’s history, we have a significant cohort of people who grew up in a country that was not a democracy. And while the majority of these people are not necessarily loyal to the Communist Party, they are loyal to their country in the way they were taught to be in a system, with propaganda at its centre and where conformity is rewarded and original thought flagged as a threat. 

At first glance, students are responding as one would expect a foreign national to respond to misrepresentations about their country, which they can only see through eyes focused by the Chinese education system and propaganda-driven “news”. And as one former diplomat noted, more Chinese students return to China after graduation, where they will want to ensure they remain on the good side of the party state.

Then there is, of course, the secretive United Front Work Department (UFWD), a little known but highly ranked department of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee that is active in Australia. The UFWD’s purview involves monitoring and engaging with the mainland Chinese diaspora. It peddles influence and propaganda in the Chinese-language media, gives heavily disguised political donations and seeds dissent at universities and, in time, no doubt, workplaces. It’s a kit bag of dark arts pioneered by the Europeans and Americans.

After asking around various government contacts, it is crystal clear that the ramifications of this outsize immigration surge was never looked at holistically, scoped for what it is in terms of size and depth or the far-reaching cultural, educational and political repercussions. It was never modeled or assessed for risk, so no planning was done to set up various test methods of dealing with potential issues when they arise to try and at least stay, if not ahead of, then maybe at least adjacent to the issues as they emerged.

Right now, it’s our reaction, confected outrage that on the hand is right in saying we can’t do this in China so why can they do it here. The answer is simple Australia has an open pluralist education system at least even while our own governments are pulling down the shutters of opacity.

There is another layer to the Chinese “problem” in that, politically, the “left” stays schtum for fear of appearing racist, while the right pretends it’s not happening because speaking out about a nation with which Australia conducts about one-third of its two-way trade is “bad for business”.

The commercial bind at university and entry-course level is a Gordian knot and the initial reactions, no doubt initially in good faith, have laid bare the weakness: the classic failure of poorly run businesses all relying too heavily on one customer, and now taking massive donations from Chinese business folk who can only get rich by being complicit with the all-powerful party. (You can draw your own conclusions; they are a highly litigious bunch.)

All of this is the proof in the pudding that letting academics run this unprecedented commercialisation of universities was as idiotic as letting journalists run newspapers, the ones that wrote so much about the internet but somehow missed that it was poised to eat their own business.

Universities have also been complicit by dint of their inaction and own lack of understanding of the broader inclinations of the ghettoisation of Chinese students. A further result of their increasing loyalty to mammon that can be traced to the Howard government’s egregious stripping of funding to our institutions in its wrongheaded ideological mismanagement of government spending in an era of resource-fuelled budget surpluses. Oh yeah, the fault and abject lack of foresight here is distributed, ironically, in a socialistic all-round way across multiple departments in Canberra’s provincial bubble world.

And that’s leaving aside the thousands of corrupt Communist Party officials that Australia’s witless immigration bureaucracy has let surge through the door in the seemingly unending conga line of successive government incompetence in Canberra. Doubtless, many will already be plying their dark arts on a scale that will make the Vietnamese drug gangs look like the local pot dealer.

[Liu Xiaobo deserved better than Australia’s pathetic half-arsed platitudes]

Of course, the “evil Chinese” branding is nowhere near a blanket proposition but even a small minority of, say, 5% as a random number presents a threat no one in Canberra understands, let alone has any idea how to deal with it. Adding to this almighty clusterfuck will be its exacerbating by the Hansonites and their ilk pointing fingers at “the Asians”. How galling that, albeit for the wrong reasons, in some small way they may have been right.

And so for China the endgame is that this opens up a third front for Beijing against Canberra, to go with trade and security — and with that comes the promise of triangulation of various interest groups at will, and removes any ambiguity that having 30% of our second biggest export market (in students), and a lazy 35% of total two-way trade with China is a risk for Australia that if it collapses could make Australia the Venezuela of the Asia Pacific, i.e. broke with all its assets on the block. This potential economic blow for Australia removes any doubt about who is holding the best cards. This is not paranoia, it’s not racist, it’s simply the facts. And this is not a drill.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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