The Epoch Times is a newspaper that most students have never heard of. Yet this internationally circulated Chinese-language publication sparked an incident that reflects deeply on issues within Australia’s growing Chinese population, and the Australian National University’s (ANU) large Chinese community.
In November of 2015, the Epoch Times, known as Da Ji Yuan Shi Bao in Chinese, began distributing at the University Pharmacy in Union Court.
Yet the pharmacy’s owner said she was initially unaware of the newspaper’s ties to Falun Gong, a religious movement that was outlawed by the Chinese government in 1999. Its practitioners are now spread across the globe, many having fled China, with their numbers estimated to be in the millions.
Practitioners are counted among the ANU’s past and present students, although few dare to reveal this for fear of retribution from the Chinese government and community. One such student, speaking under strict anonymity, divulged that her parents, who are also practitioners but still live in China, have been unlawfully harassed by the Government, and that she keeps her religion secret from even her friends at the ANU.
Shortly after the pharmacy began stocking the Epoch Times, a male Chinese student appeared at the counter, enraged by the presence of the newspaper.
According to the pharmacy, he yelled, ‘Who authorised you to distribute this?’ and ‘You can’t show this!’ while customers looked on in confusion.
The student said that he had received numerous complaints from Chinese students about the newspaper, and identified himself as being from a Chinese student association. As the student was aggressive in his body language and the shop was busy, the pharmacist on duty at the time said that she felt intimidated, and allowed him to throw out the newspapers.
‘I was concerned about the how this might affect our business,’ the pharmacist said, explaining the pharmacy’s immediate action to cease stocking the newspaper.
The pharmacist provisionally identified the student as Tao Pinru, President of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA).
Tao refused to comment on this incident.
An ANU spokesperson also declined to comment on the grounds that the incident was not reported to ANU Security, but stated that ‘openness to new ideas and tolerance of difference is part of our culture.’
Though these events were confined to a small store in Union Court, they speak to the lingering influence that the Chinese government can have on students – an influence so strong that even the sight of an anti-government newspaper is an affront to some.
The ANU’s CSSA is just one part of a web of Chinese government-sponsored student associations that stretches across the globe, with branches from Cambridge to Columbia University. Working closely with the Chinese Embassy’s Education Office, and Chinese government-sponsored media organisations OStar International Media Group and CRI Global CAMG, which are both based in Australia, the ANU’s CSSA executives have a well documented history of toeing the Party line.
A former executive at a different branch of the CSSA in Australia said that the CSSA receives some funding from the embassy for events, but that the funding is often very limited.
He added that each year CSSA executives from Universities all around the country are flown to the embassy in Canberra for a conference. In the conference, the embassy facilitates cooperation between branches and teaches them how to apply for grants from the embassy.
The former executive, who is familiar with the Canberra branch, said that ANU CSSA is controlled by Ostar International Media Group, which employs two former ANU CSSA executives, as well as President Tao Pinru. Ostar, he claimed, financially supports the CSSA and uses some of its members as free labour.
In June this year, Ostar was fined $272,850 for underpaying staff, following an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Wang Leyang, Vice President of the CSSA, was interviewed at a rally welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping for his 2014 visit to Australia, where she lauded the patriotic spirit of Chinese international students and the CSSA’s role in organising the rally.
Yet a Falun Gong practitioner who was present at the event spoke quite differently about the day, alleging that some students hurled verbal abuse at them, and used large Chinese flags to block out Falun Gong protestors.
Similarly, both Zhu Runbang, who was CSSA president from 2012 to 2014 and currently manages the Canberra office of Ostar, and the current president Tao Pinru, have published articles and comments in which they emphasise the loyal and patriotic spirit of Chinese international students.
Speaking to Chinese media last year at the CSSA’s Chinese national day celebration evening, which was attended by then-Ambassador Zhaoxu Ma, Tao stated that ‘What [Chinese students] day and night long for is the ‘China Dream’ that General Secretary Xi Jinping speaks of – serving the rejuvenation of the nation and the people with unremitting efforts. Even though our bodies are overseas, our hearts are tied to the Motherland’.
Tao also divulged that the evening had been organised under the supervision of the Ambassador.
‘Certainly, to some extent, the government tries to have more connections with [the CSSA]’, the former CSSA executive said. ‘[Xi Jinping] knows about how many people are outside of China … that’s potentially a danger to the system’.
He also emphasised that the Chinese government is often genuinely interested in the welfare of overseas students.
However, the Chinese community has another side – one of dissidence, disregard for the social taboos imposed by the Chinese government, and quite often, isolation.
Tom Zhou, a first year actuarial studies student from China, suddenly asked me only minutes after we first met, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit lonely here?’ Opposed to the political bent of the CSSA and spurred by the documentaries of dissident Ai Weiwei, yet distanced from domestic students by language, he felt isolated at ANU.
Chinese students make up a large proportion of ANU students, and have been criticised for their lack of integration into the broader ANU community. This point is echoed by an article in the Global Times entitled ‘Cliquey Chinese Need to Learn to Mix Overseas’, which calls for overseas Chinese students to challenge themselves to make friends outside of their group of compatriots.
James Yang, Vice President of Events at the ANU International Students’ Department (ISD) and CSSA Events Manager said that ISD has been doing much to help international students at ANU build social networks. Yang noted that some individuals can feel isolated, and that the process to reach them is ‘ongoing and it is a tough journey’.
Wu Lebao, a political refugee from China, said that he has been ostracised from most of the Chinese community as a result of his beliefs and history as a dissident. After being evicted by his landlady when she discovered his past, he said ‘I have been careful about my privacy especially when I am dealing with Chinese.’
‘One reason is the discrimination from my compatriots, and another is that I personally also want to avoid connection with them,’ Wu said.
Further highlighting the hostility detractors face, a Falun Gong practitioner in Canberra said that a close friend of his wife suddenly cut off contact with her. The friend later admitted that, despite being an Australian citizen and employee of the Australian Public Service, she had been compelled by the Chinese government to do so. The practitioner said that he believes the Chinese government seeks to socially isolate those opposed to the Chinese government.
Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected from the Sydney Consulate in 2005, told Woroni that he believes universities gives very little assistance to Chinese students, which allows the embassy to step in through organisations like the CSSA.
‘Australia should not just target the money and market of China, but should also not compromise on basic values and principles,’ Chen said.
‘The Australian government and universities should look after students instead of the Chinese Government. Raise their awareness about propaganda and their brainwashing – they need to know about human rights and not support the Chinese regime blindly,’ he added.
Both Chen and Wu said that the embassy uses students to infiltrate dissident groups, protest against them, and pass information to the embassy. The former CSSA executive, from a different branch of the CSSA in Australia, said that he had had no such experiences, but admitted that his CSSA branch was under less control from the Chinese government because there was no Chinese consulate in the city.
Chinese students make up a significant portion of the ANU’s student body, yet many domestic students have very few interactions with them. Last year’s incident at the University Pharmacy highlights the issues that still need to be discussed and resolved regarding the integration of Chinese students, and the influence that the Chinese Communist Party can have on them.