Pro-China activists march against the Hong Kong protests in Sydney. Photo: AFP / Saeed Khan

A single sentence can trigger indignation from President Xi Jinping’s administration. Nearly everything, apart from compliments, is off-limits in China.

As the pro-democracy protests continue in Hong Kong, Beijing has reiterated constantly that foreign governments should stop “interfering in internal affairs,” without producing a shred of evidence to back up that accusation.

To reinforce the argument, the state-run media trots out how the world’s second-largest economy abides by a “non-interference” policy when it comes to international relations. In a commentary, Dai Ruijun, an influential academic, made that perfectly clear. Again.

“Respect for each others’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, and non-interference in other countries’ international affairs are two of the basic principles of international law, which should be abided by all countries,” Dai, of the Institute of International Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out in the English-language China Daily newspaper earlier this week.

But what she did not realize was that her remarks were published just days after a damning report illustrated the depth and breadth of Beijing’s foreign stealth attacks.

Released by the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, the study accused China of infiltrating university campuses across the United Kingdom and threatening “academic freedom.”

“During our inquiry into China and the rules-based international system, we heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities,” the white paper, entitled A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies, confirmed.

“Despite the fact that there are now over 100,000 Chinese students in the UK, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand, and the US,” it added.

General election

The report was rushed out before parliament goes into recess for next month’s general election in the UK. But it highlighted the risks posed by the Chinese Confucius Institute.

Linked to the Ministry of Education, the organization is officially a bridge between China and the rest of the world by promoting the nation’s culture and language.

Still, for a growing number of critics, the Institute is more hard-boiled than soft power.

“Confucius Institutes frequently attract scrutiny because of their close ties to the Chinese government. A stream of stories indicates that intellectual freedom, merit-based hiring policies, and other foundational principles of American higher education have received short shrift in Confucius Institutes,” Rachelle Peterson, of the National Association of Scholars, pointed out.

“[The Office of Chinese Languages Council International which is better known as] the Hanban has shrouded Confucius Institutes in secrecy. At most Institutes, the terms of [the] agreement are hidden. China’s leaders have not assuaged worries that the Institutes may teach political lessons that unduly favor China,” she continued on the US advocacy group’s website this week.

“In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, called Confucius Institutes ‘an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up,’” Peterson added.

Universities in Australia and New Zealand have also been caught up in the backlash as the CCP tries to stifle debate and free-speech, particularly over the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Behind this concerted campaign is the threat of economic consequences for colleges that refuse to toe the line.

Overseas revenue

Many of those institutes in Australia rely on the influx of mainland Chinese students to boost overseas revenue, which hit a staggering A$32.4 billion (US$22 billion) last year, the University World News reported in September.

At the end of 2018, there were more than 40,000 Chinese students studying in Australia and over 11,000 in New Zealand.

“Beijing’s influence on campuses is responsible for widespread self-censorship by universities and academics in Australia and New Zealand,” Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, told the Washington Post in August.

Marshall Sahlins, of the University of Chicago, went even further, referring to Confucius Institutes as “academic malware” in the book of the same name.

The UK report is more circumspect but just as revealing.

Financial, political or diplomatic pressure has been applied “to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities,” according to the white paper from the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Similar issues have been reported in other countries,” the study stressed. “Human Rights Watch published a 12-point Code of Conduct for US universities responding to Chinese influence, stating that the Chinese government ‘has stepped up surveillance of diaspora communities, including through controls on students and scholars from China.’”

Naturally, Beijing has denied these claims, calling them “fictitious.” After all, it adheres to a “non-interference” policy.

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