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Midway through her journalism degree at an Australian university Chloe, an international student from China, was confronted by a Chinese classmate who accused her of taking an anti-Beijing line in a story she wrote.

Threatened with being reported to the Chinese Communist Party but wanting to continue to develop her skills and profile as a journalist, Chloe concluded that her only safe options were to avoid reporting on matters sensitive in Beijing, or to use a pseudonym (as she is in this article).

“I felt worried that I was just an international student and I would have no protection from the Australian government were I to get in trouble, so I started to think about ways that I can protect myself,” she said.

Chloe’s experience highlights problems facing journalism schools in Australia and other Western nations around potential risks confronting Chinese students enrolled in subjects teaching democratic media theory and practice.

With Chinese students navigating tightening media constraints from their government and many zooming into lectures from inside China due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the pressure on educators to recognise potential risks has intensified.

A report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch indicates that although some lecturers scramble to understand and respond to concerns, university administrators are turning a “blind eye”, leaving educators and students to figure it out for themselves.

“Australian university administrators are failing in their duty of care to uphold the rights of students from China,” said the report’s author, Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch and a former ABC foreign correspondent.

“Australian universities rely on the fees international students bring while turning a blind eye to concerns about harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government and its proxies. The universities should speak out and take concrete action to support the academic freedom of these students and staff.”

After she was harassed, Chloe reported the incident to “several university programs” tasked with student safety, but felt they weren’t equipped to help. “I ended up going to the teaching staff who were much more helpful than the university programs, but really it should be the university programs which are tasked with student safety and support with this type of thing,” she said.

The report found that harassment, surveillance and intimidation of pro-democracy students from China has increased over the past decade. Yet universities had failed to develop policies and systems that adequately discourage and respond to this behaviour.

Li Wei, a student whose experience is cited in the report, said his parents had been visited by Chinese police due to pro-democracy messages he had posted on Twitter, and he has decided he cannot return home. Another student reported that he had been pressured by government officials to spy on Uygher diaspora in Australia. He ended up moving to a new city where there was not a large local Uyghur community.

“The majority of students who experienced harassment didn’t report it to their university,” McNeill said. “They believe their universities care more about maintaining relationships with the Chinese government and not alienating students supportive of China’s Communist Party.”

Their lecturers are also feeling on unsafe ground. The report found university staff were not getting appropriate guidance and support. One unnamed academic is quoted saying: “The [university administrators] make it very clear you have to look after yourself.”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson says universities have long-established and robust policies to deal with coercion and intimidation on campuses, and urged students to report incidents of concern.

Although the report does not home in on experiences in a particular degree, McNeill says the study of journalism looms as a particular risk for Chinese students.

In April her colleague Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, shared a tweet: “How to deter young people in China from taking up journalism — threaten it can be conflated with national security crimes.”

It was in reference to an article released by Chinese news publication Xinhua about three students studying in Hong Kong who had allegedly committed espionage. Two of the students mentioned were media or journalism students, one having worked for a Western media organisation in China and abroad and had “spread anti-China material”, the article said.

This is symptomatic of increasing crackdowns on media in the face of China’s sweeping national security laws for Hong Kong, including the arrest of a 22-year-old Chinese citizen for allegedly “subverting state power” after he worked as an intern for a foreign media outlet, the trial currently under way for Australian journalist Yang Hengjun, and the recent arrest of a senior journalist working for the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper.

One potential solution at Australian universities, at least in the short term, could be to steer students enrolling from China to reporting on non-controversial issues when required to produce stories for applied subjects. But for many Chinese students seeking opportunities inside Australian media, their knowledge and engagement with newsworthy and controversial issues and their language skills were their greatest strengths.

“The fact that we’re in Australia, and China is a really big topic in the political discussion, means there’s not really a way that you can really stay away from reporting controversial issues,” said one Chinese-born former journalism student, now an Australian citizen.

The article also appears in Citizen, a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Jordyn Beazley is a journalist at the Citizen.