Australian university backs tweet deletes after Chinese social media backlash

A handout photo. Chinese students accounted for more than 20 per cent of the UNSW Sydney’s tuition fee revenue in 2017, according to research released last year.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

An Australian university said it deleted tweets linking to an article on human rights in Hong Kong because they did not comply with the institution’s policy.

The University of New South Wales Sydney said the views in the article, which triggered an online backlash among mainland Chinese students, were also “being misconstrued as representing the university”.

“The opinions expressed by UNSW academics do not always represent the views of the university. UNSW protects academic freedom and freedom of speech, respecting the right of academics and others to express their views within the law,” it said in a statement on Monday afternoon.

The comments came after the university’s official Twitter account tweeted on Friday afternoon a link to an article on the newsroom section of the UNSW’s website titled “China needs international pressure to end Hong Kong wrongs”.

The original tweet quoted comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct law lecturer Elaine Pearson saying: “Now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong.”

Condemnation on Chinese social media platforms was swift.

“Has UNSW gone crazy? They do not want Chinese students any more?” one commenter said in a WeChat group.

Another commenter on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo said: “UNSW’s political stance is clear enough. I think Chinese students will be wise enough not to choose this school in the coming academic year in order to avoid employment issues back in China in the future.”

UNSW Sydney obtained 22-23 per cent of its revenue from tuition fees from Chinese students in 2017, according to research released last year by University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones.

By Friday night, the tweets had been deleted. According to Pearson, the article was also taken down before reappearing on the UNSW law school’s section of the site.

The university said: “UNSW Sydney decided to remove the posts on our social channels as they were not in line with our policies – and the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university.”

The university did not respond to a request for comment on whether the decision was in response to pressure from Chinese students or the Chinese consul general.

Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan weighed in on Monday night. Without naming UNSW, Tehan said universities should “prize free speech as a pillar of Australian democracy”.

Pearson said online that she was “seeking clarification from UNSW on what occurred”.

“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 over views they disagree with,” she said.

Ties between China and Australia have deteriorated over a number of issues , from conditions in Hong Kong to military activities in the South China Sea .

The Chinese Ministry of Education has also warned students of the dangers of studying in Australia, citing the risks from Covid-19 and increasing discrimination against people of Asian descent.

Canberra, meanwhile, has called for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.