Domestic spy agency ASIO is ramping up its engagement with the nation’s university sector amid growing attempts by China to peddle influence on campus through increased monitoring of its students and challenging academics whose views do not accord with those of Beijing.
As ASIO’s director-general Duncan Lewis expressed strong concerns in his agency’s annual report about a growing and “insidious threat” of espionage and foreign interference over the past year, it was understood there had been several high-level discussions in recent weeks between the agency and the university sector about how to combat the threat.
In the ASIO annual report, Mr Lewis said there were two major, growing threats.
There was terrorism that “shows no sign of diminishing” and there was an unprecedented level of hostile foreign interference “expanding in its scope and complexity”.
“Espionage and foreign interference is an insidious threat,” he said. “Activities that may appear relatively harmless today can have significant future consequences.”
Mr Lewis said that, over the past financial year, “we identified foreign powers clandestinely seeking to shape the opinion of members of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials in order to advance their country’s own political objectives”.
“These activities, undertaken covertly to obscure the role of foreign governments, represent a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions, and the exercise of our citizens’ rights.”
Earlier this week, the ABC reported that the fear of Chinese government intrusion into Western universities had sparked a push by Australia’s closest allies for a more co-ordinated response.
Discussions had begun in diplomatic and security circles about whether the Five Eyes intelligence partners – the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – should respond collectively to the threat.
The issue is a vexed one, especially for the nation’s top universities, which are heavily dependent on the fees paid by Chinese students, who constitute 30 per cent of international students.
The step up in activity by ASIO in recent weeks coincided with strong public comments by both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her departmental secretary and former ambassador to China Frances Adamson about creeping Chinese government influence on campus. These warnings earned both women a strong rebuke on Wednesday by Chinese state-owned media.
The Global Times said it was Australia that was suppressing freedom of speech on campus, which was “typical of Cold War thinking”, and it alleged Chinese students were becoming victims of racial discrimination.
“If this arrogant country continues to apply the China threat theory, it’s probably time for prospective Chinese students to rethink studying in Australia,” the paper opined.
In a lecture at Adelaide University two weeks ago, Ms Adamson warned the universities to guard their academic integrity and independence.
“The silencing of anyone in our society, from students to lecturers to politicians, is an affront to our values,” she said.
“Enforced silence runs counter to academic freedom. It is only by discussion … which is courteous that falsehoods can be corrected.”
On Monday, Ms Bishop told Chinese university students affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party to respect freedom of speech in Australia.
“This country prides itself on its values of openness and upholding freedom of speech and, if people want to come to Australia, they are our laws,” Ms Bishop said.
“That’s who we are. And they should abide by it.”
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