Are Australian Universities under Threat from China?

Mr Diarmuid Cooney-O’Donoghue1

1Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

The Australian media reports almost daily on Chinese Communist Party influence in Australian universities and associated threats to academic freedom. This includes the dangers of research collaboration with China and the threat from patriotic Chinese international students. However, there is little empirical research about whether academic freedom is actually under threat. This paper will draw on interviews with Chinese students and will review existing literature to argue that while Chinese international students may be patriotic, they are not in Australia to threaten universities, but that they come to improve their economic opportunities.  This paper will show that there is limited evidence that universities are restricting research and teaching on sensitive China topics to avoid offending the CCP and Chinese students. The findings will be based on reviewing existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews to examine the experiences of academics at Australian universities who teach subjects and conduct research on issues that the CCP regards as sensitive, such as human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang or the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Therefore, contrary to media claims, CCP influence does not shape academics’ research and teaching.


Diarmuid is a PhD candidate at Monash University, where he is researching academic freedom in Australian universities in the Xi Jinping era. He works in social policy at the Brotherhood of St Laurence and is a Director at the John Cain Foundation.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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