Chinese students at Australia’s University of Queensland have gone into hiding after their protests against political interference from Beijing were hijacked by pro-China activists — but they may have found a strong ally in Canberra.

Fearful of retaliatory action after they return to China, international students mostly stayed away from a follow-up rally at the university’s Brisbane campus on July 31 that attracted only about 70 protesters.

“I am afraid I will be on a (black) list. You know, some of my friends have seen their (personal) information on WeChat and these other sites,” said May, a tourism student. “Why will they (China) want this information?”

Other students said their photos were posted on Chinese websites after they attended anti-China protest rallies and that they were later abused by online users.

A seated protest by students in Brisbane last week against a mooted treaty for extraditing Hong Kong criminal suspects to China passed off peacefully, but a later rally over China’s political policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as its ill-treatment of ethnic Uighurs, quickly turned ugly.

An anti-China student activist at the University of Queensland, July 2019. Photo: Facebook/Phoebe Fan

Video footage shows about 200 pro-China protesters tearing up placards and drowning out chants with nationalist songs. There were clashes between the two pro and anti-China sides for several hours until police intervened.

Transparency 4 UQ, an online movement formed after the confrontation calling for full disclosure of the university’s ties to China, said more than 500 people had registered their support for the cause, but admitted students from both Hong Kong and China were intimidated by the counter-protest, which they thought had Beijing’s official backing.

The university has since responded with a web page that offers assurances of its autonomy, but the student group is not satisfied there is enough transparency and doesn’t believe the assurances stack up.

The Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Dr Xu Jie, issued a statement praising “the spontaneous patriotic behavior of Chinese students” who had confronted the protesters. Xu has been nominated for the post of honorary adjunct professor at the university where the clashes occurred.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne responded with a statement of her own that warned foreign diplomats to respect free speech:

“The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behavior.”

Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in Sydney on January 5, 2017. Australia on January 5 rejected claims it tried to "recruit" Indonesia's best soldiers as it worked to mend relations with Jakarta after military ties were suspended. / AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS
Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media in Sydney on January 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

Some mainland students told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that pro-Beijing groups at the were seeking support from the consulate and China’s embassy in Canberra, but gave no further details.

Finance student Minghui Zhu, 18, said pro-China students would hand out T-shirts “promoting Chinese culture.” He blamed the anti-China rallies on “someone playing an underhanded game that inflamed and agitated people.”

It is unclear how much influence China has over Australian campuses, but the activities of state-funded groups like the Confucius Institute are facing intense scrutiny from public agencies. There are 14 institutes operating on university campuses in Australia and another 67 in school classrooms.

Academics involved with the institutes have said there is no evidence they are being used for any state-sponsored political activism or propaganda. However, Ross Babbage, ex-chief of strategic analysis at the Australian Office of National Assessments, an intelligence body, said their risks had been underestimated.

“While the cover of the Confucius Institutes is primarily language and cultural training, they fit into a large framework of scores of other things they are doing in foreign countries, including in Australia — things like spying, which is massive and we know most of it is coming from China.”

Run by Beijing’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), the centers are part of a global network of more than 500 institutes and 650 classroom programs. Beijing’s official position is that the institutes are intended to influence perceptions of China and its policies abroad.

China's Vice President Xi Jinping makes a speech before he opened Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. The Confucius Institute will promote the study of Chinese culture and language with a focus on Chinese Medicine - one of the world's oldest and longest standing healthcare systems, tracing back more than 2,500 years. Xi is on a five-day visit to Australia. AFP PHOTO/William WEST / AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST
Xi Jinping opened Australia’s first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute at RMIT University in Melbourne in 2010, when he was vice president. Photo: AFP/William West

Former Communist Party Politburo member Li Changchun said in a speech back in 2007 that the institutes were “an important part of China’s propaganda set-up.”

Then-deputy education minister Hao Ping, said that “establishing Confucius Institutes is a strategic plan for increasing our soft power.” China’s Ministry of Education website still carries a copy of his remarks, which appear to have been issued as a statement.

Communist Party committee members from Chinese universities have served as directors of the University of Queensland’s Confucius Institute.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, a domestic spy agency, instituted 18 contacts with universities, research institutes and their internet suppliers last year to investigate perceived security threats.

It is believed the institutes are being scrutinized for possible breaches of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, legislation introduced last year that is intended to block political interference from abroad. Seen as mostly aimed at China, the law provoked a diplomatic row with Beijing.

Contracts between Hanban and the various universities vary in their terms, but all institutes have total control over content, the hiring and training of staff, budgeting and organizational structure and activities.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP
Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

Staff at universities in the US and Canada have moved to shut down Confucius Institutes from their campuses. At least 27 universities worldwide have shut down their institutes due to concerns over academic freedom and the potential impact on free speech, mostly in Europe and North America.

They include universities in Stockholm, Sweden; Lyon, France; and American states of Michigan, Texas and North Carolina. The Toronto School Board in Canada closed all classroom institutes in its state after a series of protests by parents.

Now, there is growing support for Australian colleges to fund in-house, rather than Beijing-backed Chinese cultural programs. But cash-strapped university boards will be reluctant to risk upsetting China: some rely on Chinese students for as much as 20% of their enrollment funds, and any state pressure for a boycott could have major financial repercussions for many universities.