Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has urged the University of New South Wales to protect freedom of speech after its media team deleted social media posts that drew an online backlash from Chinese students.
The university faced a barrage of pro-China criticism over the weekend after publishing an article that expressed concern about Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. A post on Twitter sharing the link was subsequently removed by the university.
Academic freedom and free speech on campus are core values of any self-respecting higher education institution and they should never be sacrificed for lucrative international student income.
The article, based on comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson, was also temporarily unavailable on Saturday morning at its original location on the university website’s general news section.
It then became accessible in the business and law section and was labeled as opinion.
The original tweet posting the article had quoted Ms Pearson saying now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong.
The university was then hit with critical social media posts and emails from Chinese nationals that said Ms Pearson’s article was ignorant, biased, discriminatory, had severely offended Chinese students and amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.
Responding to the initial blowback, the university added a second tweet saying the opinions expressed by our academics do not always represent the views of UNSW.
The tweet said the university had a long and valued relationship with Greater China and provided a welcome and inclusive environment.
Both the university’s posts were deleted by Saturday.
Liberal MP Tim Wilson accused UNSW of cowardice and said universities needed to build a sense of resilience against foreign interference.
If the university isn’t prepared to stand upon such basic tests of intellectual diversity against something as straightforward as human rights violations abroad then it paints a very worrying picture to me, the former Human Rights Commissioner said.
Labor senator Tony Sheldon said when respected voices such as Ms Pearson and Human Rights Watch were being censored we have a big problem.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador, accused the university of self-censorship. “UNSW seems to have acted in response to an orchestrated campaign of online intimidation, when such freedoms should be non-negotiable,” he said.
On Saturday evening, state-run nationalist newspaper The Global Times posted an article saying the University of NSW had outraged and shamed Chinese students, who were demanding an apology and removal of the article.
More than 16,000 Chinese students make up a quarter of UNSW’s student body.
Mr Ryan said, while students should be able to campaign on a range of issues they believe in, the university should not so easily accede to the demands of the campaign.
They claim to stand up for freedom of speech but by doing this they are completely trashing that reputation, he said.
Ms Pearson said she was seeking clarification from UNSW on what had happened and that advocating for the human rights of Hongkongers should not be controversial.
I hope UNSW will reaffirm its protection of academic freedom and make it clear that academic freedom does not mean caving to censorship demands by some people overviews they disagree with, she said on Monday.
In the article, Ms Pearson had called for the United Nations to establish a special envoy to monitor the human rights situation in Hong Kong as the Chinese government cracks down on dissent and winds back the city’s legal autonomy.
Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party, called the episode an unacceptable disgrace.