The Universities

China’s Sway over Australian Universities

This is an edited extract from Salvatore Babones’s latest book, Australia’s Universities: Can They Reform? published by Ocean Reeve Publishing of Brisbane.

Have Australia’s universities been corrupted by China? One of the biggest challenges in management theory is goal alignment: how to ensure that the goals of managers are aligned with the goals of proprietors. In the private sector, a common solution is to link executive remuneration to a company’s share price. Another is to link executive remuneration to financial targets, such as profitability, revenue growth or cost cutting. In most countries (including Australia), listed companies are required not only to disclose the overall level of executive remuneration, but also to disclose the terms of any such performance-linked incentives that might influence executive decision-making. The idea is to give investors insights into the drivers of executive behaviour, and to assure them that executives are properly incentivised to act in the best interests of shareholders.

Executive compensation terms at Australia’s public universities, by contrast, are secretive and opaque. The total pay packages of vice-chancellors and other senior executives are published, along with the total amounts of any performance-linked bonuses, but the triggers for those bonuses are generally kept confidential. Where the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has blazed a path towards accountability and transparency, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and state regulators fear to tread. As a result, the Australian public knows more about the drivers of executive behaviour at its listed companies than at its public universities. It took a whistleblower leak for even a federal senator to learn the terms of a vice-chancellor’s compensation incentives at the University of Queensland—and even he could only disclose those terms under parliamentary privilege.

The University of Queensland key performance indicator revealed at the time was that the vice-chancellor should “work towards a sound and strategic positioning in China, given its potential rise towards becoming the predominant provider of research globally and that it will continue to be a very important source of international students”. Its revelation provoked controversy because the vice-chancellor was awarded a performance bonus despite failing to diversify the university away from its high level of reliance on Chinese international students. Queensland’s coronavirus-induced financial crisis ensured that international student fee revenue would grab the headlines. This obscured the real bombshell: the expectation that the vice-chancellor should “work towards a sound and strategic positioning in China” due to China’s importance as a “provider of research”. This is a much more compromising revelation than anything to do with an over-reliance on Chinese students.

It is true that many Australian universities (especially, but not exclusively, Group of Eight universities) are indeed highly dependent on Chinese international student fee revenue, some of them for as much as one-quarter of their total revenues from all sources. But this revenue stream is, under ordinary circumstances, not directly influenced by relations between individual universities and the Chinese government. In fact, China has never previously “weaponised” student flows as a tool of international relations, despite many threats to do so. There is even less evidence to suggest that it has ever steered students away from individual universities in an attempt to influence their behaviour. This may have happened, or (more likely) universities might fear that it could happen, but it is not a major factor in universities” relationships with China.

Universities’ research relationships with China, by contrast, are much more thoroughly politicised. For example, the US Ivy League’s Cornell University was forced to suspend research collaboration with a Chinese counterpart in 2015 due to Chinese government harassment. The program involved sensitive research into workers rights in China. Few Australian universities are so courageous. Research sponsored by the ANU’s Centre on China in the World sponsors research in five areas that range from the uncontroversial (“Sustainable Urbanisation” and “Energy Transition”) to the celebratory (a “Politics, Policy and Society” program that will investigate the “adaptations in public policy [that] are driving China’s re-emergence as a world power”). Until recently, the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre focused on “climate change, health services, cultural heritage and new technologies”. The Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS focuses on trade and investment. Late to the game, in 2018 UNSW opened a research centre in China “dedicated to environmental protection”.

Unlike Cornell’s research into working conditions in China, none of these Australian initiatives is likely to make waves. Individual scholars at each of these universities, and even some who are associated with their respective China studies centres, may conduct research that is critical of China. That research may even, in some cases, be funded by the centres—though it is unlikely to be foregrounded on their websites. Contrary to some public perceptions, Australian universities do not systematically suppress research that is critical of China, and academic freedom is alive and well in Australia. The China threat to Australian research autonomy is much more subtle than the media portrays. Despite a handful of ham-fisted attempts to quash criticism, it consists mainly of initiatives not pursued, academics not hired, and research not funded. The strategic research initiatives of Australian universities are just that—strategic. No Australian university is likely to consider it strategic to use discretionary funds to support research that is highly critical of China.

It’s hard to manufacture a conspiracy out of avenues not pursued, and thus it is very difficult to substantiate claims of undue Chinese influence over the behaviour of Australian universities. Yet the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Quite the contrary: what universities choose to keep quiet or confidential about their relationships with China may point to unpalatable realities that lurk just below the surface. The culture of secrecy surrounding many universities’ dealings with China is suspiciously not palpable. University participation in Chinese initiatives like the Confucius Institutes and the Thousand Talents programs is often cloaked in confidentiality when it could be highly publicised, and likely would be, if it involved any country other than China. It sometimes almost seems as if universities are ashamed of their relationships with China, and believe that the less said about them the better.

The silence that surrounds Australian universities’ China ties breeds suspicion—and rightly so, since it is the ideal environment for the behind-the-scenes exercise of improper Chinese influence. Politicians, the press and the public have become alert to the possibility that Australia’s universities might be compromised by their China ties, but they are often poorly equipped to understand the inner workings of universities and the obscure routes through which Chinese influence can operate. Worse, they may have little understanding of exactly why and how universities might be corrupted by China. As a result, compromising information often hides in plain sight, since those who are responsible for holding universities accountable are unaware that the information is, in fact, compromising. Unfortunately, the sparse data that universities have allowed into the public domain cannot support a meaningful statistical analysis of China’s influence on Australian universities. Nonetheless, enough information is available to shed some light on the problem, and its potential solutions.


The Foreign Relations Act and the Confucius Institutes

The threat posed by China to the integrity of Australian institutions has become a staple of media reporting over the last five years, and universities have been at the forefront of the debate. In November 2019, the Commonwealth and the universities agreed on a set of unenforceable “Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector”, while in 2020 the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security opened an inquiry into “National Security Risks Affecting the Australian Higher Education and Research Sector”. The former did little more than define foreign interference and urge universities to “be mindful” of risks and undertake “due diligence” while maintaining “transparent and robust reporting”. The latter was supposed to report in July 2021, but as of October 1 had still not done so.

In a potentially more consequential intervention, at the end of 2020 the Commonwealth passed legislation to counter inappropriate foreign influence in the conduct of international relations at the sub-national level. The Australia’s Foreign Relations Act (AFRA) primarily targeted state, territory and local governments, which were required to declare their agreements with their international peers. This included everything from mundane sister-city programs up to Victoria’s headline “Belt and Road” agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission. The AFRA was also made to apply to universities, requiring them to declare any “written arrangement, agreement, contract, understanding or undertaking” with a foreign government or a foreign university that “does not have institutional autonomy”. The obvious intention of this convoluted language was to force Australian universities to declare their partnerships in China.

Australian universities were required to report their existing agreements to the government by June 10, 2021. They reportedly declared “more than 6000” agreements, with “more than 4000” declared by Group of Eight universities and “more than 2000” by others. At time of writing, the agreements had not yet been published in the public registry set up by the legislation, but it hardly matters: the public registry will include only the title of and parties to the agreement, and whether or not the Minister for Foreign Affairs decided to annul it. Nor is the government itself likely to learn much about these agreements, if Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement is anything to go by. Annulled on April 21, Victoria’s memorandum of understanding and framework agreement to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative contained nothing but non-binding platitudes about friendship and co-operation. Many university agreements are likely to amount to much the same.

It is possible that the Foreign Minister will decide to annul some university agreements, but this has little potential to thwart inappropriate Chinese influence. Like Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement, most formal university agreements with their Chinese counterparts are likely to be innocuous and unenforceable memoranda of understanding. Chinese institutions have a penchant for signing ceremonies and other symbolic gestures, and it is almost certain that many of the thousands of Australian university agreements registered under the AFRA are nothing more than dead letters. The real compromises lie elsewhere. The root problem with the Australian government’s approach to countering Chinese influence is that it focuses on formal agreements that have the potential to cause embarrassment instead of on the informal understandings that underlie them. By focusing only on formal, written agreements, the AFRA is designed to overlook the real mechanisms through which Chinese influence operates.

One clear target of the AFRA is Australia’s thirteen university-based Confucius Institutes. China sponsors hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world, most of them based at universities (although individual institutional arrangements differ). Until 2019, the New South Wales Department of Education even had a Confucius Institute agreement to deliver Chinese-language education in thirteen schools. The agreement was apparently made directly with the Chinese government’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (known as the “Hanban” or “Chinese Institute”). The university agreements typically involve an Australian university, a Chinese partner university, and the Hanban, with the Chinese university providing teaching staff and the Hanban making a financial contribution. The university-based Confucius Institutes are constituted as commercial enterprises, and as a result the contracts underlying them are treated as commercial-in-confidence agreements.

The main purpose of Confucius Institutes is to offer Chinese-language education and associated cultural programs. University-based Confucius Institutes in Australia typically do not teach for-credit classes to ordinary university students, although some Confucius Institutes abroad do. The University of Queensland controversially allowed its Confucius Institute to partner in sponsoring several social science classes, although the details are murky. It particularly came under fire for questionable China-related content in an undergraduate economics class. But the mainstay of Australia’s university-based Confucius Institutes is teaching Chinese language and culture courses to members of the wider community. This raises the question of why they should be based at universities at all. Other countries’ community language education outreach programs tend not to be university-based, but China seems to have a strong preference for working from within established host institutions.

Australia has a higher concentration of university-based Confucius Institutes than any country besides New Zealand. They exist at Adelaide, Charles Darwin, Griffith, La Trobe, Melbourne, Newcastle, Queensland, QUT, RMIT, Sydney, UNSW, UWA and Victoria, although the RMIT institute will reportedly close soon. All of these except Adelaide have released their Confucius Institute agreements to the press, but in any case these agreements do not include financial details beyond the provision of a start-up grant of $150,000. It is known that in a typical American Confucius Institute contract, the host university provides the physical facilities (office and classroom space) and pays for a director, while the Chinese partners provide a start-up grant on the order of US$150,000, an annual subsidy on the order of US$100,000, a Chinese associate director, teaching staff, books and materials. The premium-level “model” Confucius Institute at the University of Auckland reportedly received NZ$992,571 in Chinese funding in 2017, although half of this apparently went to staffing, which seems to be considered as an in-kind contribution at most other Confucius Institutes.

These are not small sums, but they are not transformative. Indeed, it is not clear that Confucius Institutes actually turn a profit at all. The RMIT Confucius Institute is reportedly being closed “due to the financial impacts of COVID-19”, which strongly suggests that it is not a profit maker for the university. Back-of-the-envelope calculations for other Confucius Institutes based on the number of courses they offer and the tuition levels they charge seem to suggest that few if any bring in more than half a million dollars a year, from which administrative and infrastructural expenses must be deducted. It is difficult to be any more specific than that, because it seems that not one of the hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world publishes financial accounts. Despite an extensive search of the published research on Confucius Institutes, supplemented by consultations with some of the world’s leading experts on the subject, it has proven impossible to discover any detailed accounting of Confucius Institute finances anywhere.

Thus, if the government decides to use its new-found powers to close Australia’s Confucius Institutes, it might, strangely, be doing the universities a favour. It seems more likely that hosting a Confucius Institute is a gesture that universities make to keep in China’s favour, not the bonanza to university finances that many critics suspect. If hosting Confucius Institutes is as much a drag on universities’ finances as it is on universities’ reputations, then vice-chancellors might confidentially welcome government action to close them. That would release the universities from their continuing obligations while allowing them to avoid taking responsibility for the closures. Their standing with the Chinese government might, perhaps, be undiminished. Were universities to protest the closures, it might even be enhanced.

But if not for the money, why do so many Australian universities host Confucius Institutes? They pose high reputational risks. They impose onerous administrative burdens, including the requirement that universities support visa applications for seconded Chinese staff members. They do not produce research. And they do not contribute to the universities’ Chinese-language offerings for their own students. Hosting a Confucius Institute does, however, create intangible goodwill for a university that wants to maintain “a sound and strategic positioning in China”. Contrary to popular perceptions, that goodwill is not primarily redeemed in international student tuition dollars: there seems to be no evidence that the Chinese government steers prospective students towards particular foreign universities. The coin of Chinese goodwill is spent not on recruitment, but on research.


The structure of Australia-China research collaboration

As Australia’s march up the international university rankings demonstrates, research success is the key metric on which universities are judged—and judge themselves. And Australian universities rely on China for high-citation research even more than for international students. This is especially true in the “big science” disciplines that are central to international rankings success. Detailed research published by ACRI reveals that “in certain subject areas, Australia’s collaboration with China has become vital to knowledge creation”. According to ACRI, collaborations with China-based researchers account for more than a quarter of all of Australia’s highly-cited research publications in thirteen out of the twenty-one broad fields indexed by Clarivate. In seven fields, Australia’s reliance on collaborations with Chinese universities for highly-cited publications exceeds 50 per cent: mathematics (81.3 per cent), materials science (77.8), chemistry (76.2), engineering (70.0), computer science (64.7), physics (60.0) and agriculture (52.9).

In short, without Chinese collaboration, Australian universities could not have achieved their current high standing in the international research rankings. Across all twenty-one fields indexed by Clarivate (including cross-field research), China collaborations account for an average of 39.1 per cent of all of Australia’s highly-cited research publications, calculated on a field-wise basis. These and the figures cited above pertain to research publications in the top 1 per cent by citation count in each field. Additional ACRI research confirms that it is precisely for these premium, high-citation publications that Australia depends most on collaboration with China. Using the more comprehensive Elsevier Scopus database to chart the prevalence of Australia-China collaboration on research publications of all quality levels across twenty-eight broad fields, the field-wise average level of collaboration with China drops to only 15.5 per cent of these less-selective publications.

Were the Commonwealth to take the extreme step of using its AFRA powers to halt all collaboration with Chinese universities, Australian universities would almost certainly suffer a catastrophic decline in their international rankings. Any Chinese decision to halt collaboration with Australia would have the same effect. The impact would be felt most keenly in the hard science fields that are disproportionately represented in the international rankings, and would be focused on the highly-cited research that has the greatest potential to move the rankings. By contrast, Australia’s dependence on China for research collaboration is relatively low in commerce, the health sciences, the social sciences, and (in the Scopus data) the humanities. Collectively, these fields enrol by far the majority of Australian university students, but (with the exception of medicine) they are not well represented in the international research rankings.

Thus in the broad-brush political economy of the Australian university system (and leaving medicine to one side), student fees and Commonwealth grants tied to student enrolments tend to support research and scholarship in areas with low rankings impact, while collaboration with Chinese universities is crucial to research success in areas with high rankings impact. Medicine is a special case, since it has long been treated as a national priority area, and both teaching and research in the health sciences are heavily subsidised by Commonwealth grants. For much of the rest of Australia’s scientific establishment, access to Chinese collaboration has become indispensable. Twenty years ago, Australia had a respectable presence in international science rankings, but it was not a global scientific research powerhouse. It ranked tenth in HCRs, lagging far behind the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Japan in numbers of HCRs per university. Co-operation with China propelled Australia into the top tier.

The exact mechanism through which it has done so, however, is poorly reflected in the available statistics. Data on international collaboration are derived from the university affiliations of the authors listed on academic journal articles. The actual nationalities of the authors themselves are unknown. To find out, it would take a major biographical research effort mapping the individual career trajectories of Australia-based scientists, and even then, citizenship status could only be surmised. In any case, leading universities are highly globalised, and for most of them it is a matter of principle to recruit the best talent on a competitive basis from anywhere in the world. It would be a grave transgression of university principles to differentiate among researchers based on their nationalities or national origins. To do so would violate university non-discrimination policies and, in all likelihood, the Racial Discrimination Act.

That is right and proper, and not to be undermined in a liberal democratic country like Australia. But in a world where other countries do discriminate on the basis of nationality and national origin, it has the potential to generate perverse structural outcomes. A minor example of this can be seen in the small number of US government research grants that are available to US citizens anywhere in the world: the small subset of Australian academics who happen to be US citizens have differential access to these grants, and thus may enjoy special structural advantages vis-à-vis their non-American colleagues. In the case of the United States, a country with similar institutions to Australia (and a similar commitment to non-discrimination), the risks posed by differential access to grants and collaboration, although structural, are not systemic. Australian universities are not meaningfully compromised by the need to retain access to the small number of citizen-restricted US government grant programs.

When it comes to China, the situation is very different. The Chinese government bestows benefits not only on Chinese citizens abroad, but also on former citizens of Chinese birth (whose acquisition of foreign citizenship it generally does not recognise), and in some cases even on non-citizens merely of Chinese descent. China’s discriminatory practices are not always positive for those affected: China has been known to impose arbitrary penalties on non-citizens of Chinese birth or descent, too. Officially, it is incumbent on Australian universities and the Australian government to overlook the benefits and protest the impositions. Again: this is right and proper. But Australia’s official non-discrimination does not obviate the structural effects of China’s official discrimination. And, unlike American official discrimination, China’s official discrimination is so extensive and pervasive that it does pose systemic risks to the Australian university system.

Although unacknowledged in studies of Australia-China research collaboration, the fact is that most of it involves collaboration between China-born academics who work at Australian universities and their colleagues in China. Prima facie, there is nothing wrong with this. But scratch the surface, and serious problems come to light. Australia is almost certainly the beneficiary of a massive academic “brain drain” from China, with top Chinese scientists receiving offers to relocate to Australian universities—while retaining ties to their old institutions and networks in China. Thus what appears in the statistics as Australia-China research collaboration often consists of nothing more than Chinese research, conducted in China, in which one of the members of the research team has relocated to Australia. This portrayal is difficult to prove conclusively, but obvious to anyone who takes a moment to make a cursory search of the backgrounds of the collaborators involved.

Again, it must be stressed: this implies no misbehaviour on the part of the scientists involved and no malpractice on the part of their universities. But it creates structural risks all the same. The presence of a large number of China-born academics at Australian universities who depend primarily on Chinese networks for the resources to conduct their research generates strong incentives for Australian universities to acquiesce in Chinese practices and comply with Chinese demands. Government attention has naturally focused on the potential security threats posed by Chinese scientists working on strategically sensitive research in Australia. These fears, ironically, get the risks backward because they wrongly assume that Chinese scientists in Australia are embedded in Australian research networks, when the reality is that they are much more likely to be embedded in Chinese ones. The real risk isn’t that China will steal Australian science. It’s that Australian universities will compromise their values in order to retain access to Chinese science.


China’s Thousand Talents programs

Nothing better illustrates the risks embedded in Australia-China research collaboration than the participation of Australian university researchers in China’s Thousand Talents programs. The “Thousand Talents” branding was launched in 2008 and officially retired in 2018 in the wake of negative publicity and US government investigations, but it still serves as a shorthand for China’s foreign recruitment efforts. Currently operating under the official label “National High-End Foreign Experts Recruitment Plan”, the Thousand Talents programs are a series of recruitment drives intended to bring foreign expertise to China. Although many non-Chinese academics have been involved in Thousand Talents recruitment, the main focus of these programs is on China-born academics working abroad. Thousand Talents recruitment focuses on high-achievement academic researchers in the hard sciences, but various programs also target social scientists, private sector engineers, and others. By 2017, China claimed to have recruited “more than 70 … Nobel Prize laureates or academicians” through these programs.

Of course, many countries operate international talent recruitment programs, including Australia. What’s distinctive about China’s Thousand Talents programs is that they encourage their recruits to remain in their overseas jobs. Instead of moving to China to take up full-time positions contributing to their new institutions, Thousand Talents awardees typically keep their day jobs at Western universities while moonlighting at Chinese partner institutions. This suits tenured academics quite well, since few are willing to give up secure, permanent, prestigious positions at Western universities for risky and potentially politicised appointments in China. Thus the typical Thousand Talents recruit may hold a professorial chair at a Western university while simultaneously heading a research centre in China, directing the work of dozens (or even hundreds) of junior academics, postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and lab technicians whose salaries are paid by a Chinese partner university.

In one especially prominent case of Thousand Talents recruitment gone wrong, a Harvard University nano-scientist (who was not of Chinese origin) was charged by the US Department of Justice with failing to make required disclosures of foreign conflicts of interest on his US government grant applications. Signing up as a “Strategic Scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology in 2012, he was paid US$50,000 per month, given a lavish living allowance, and awarded “more than [US]$1.5 million to establish a research lab” in China. How many Chinese staff served under him is not known, although his contract apparently specified that he would mentor “young teachers and PhD students”. He may or may not have informed his superiors at Harvard about his second job, but either way, it was revealed in the FBI’s affidavit that Harvard eventually became aware of his China connections. Part of his role under his Thousand Talents agreement was to serve as director of the “Harvard-WUT Nano Key Lab”, and in early 2015 Harvard objected to his unlicensed use of the university name. The university did not, however, force him to give up his Thousand Talents position.

Although the spectacular arrest and indictment of a Harvard professor for making false claims on grant applications is truly exceptional, his participation in a Thousand Talents program with at least the passive acquiescence of university administrators is not. Many top scientists accept these appointments, and among top Western scientists of Chinese origin it is almost routine. Whether motivated by ambition, patriotism, or the simple desire to give something back to their country of birth, many China-born scientists working abroad are eager to establish collaborations with universities and institutes in China. And again it must be stressed: there is nothing improper about these personal motivations. In all probability, most of the scholars involved disclose their partnerships to their Western host universities and declare their outside interests, when required, on government grant applications.

Examined at an individual level, it is entirely appropriate, even praiseworthy, that China-born scientists should help build China’s research capacity. A major moral criticism of immigration policy in countries like Australia is that it deprives developing countries of their best and brightest, with countries like China bearing the costs of training young scholars only to see them emigrate once they reach maturity. When China-born scientists participate in Thousand Talents programs, it helps compensate China for this brain drain, giving emigrants the opportunity to educate new generations of young Chinese scholars back home. In this individual-level calculus, many China-born Thousand Talents scholars are actually doing a service to Western countries like Australia and the United States by repaying the moral debt that Western countries owe to China for encouraging so many of China’s most talented and productive citizens to emigrate. There is, quite simply, nothing wrong with China-born scientists (who may still be Chinese citizens) doing their patriotic duty by contributing to the development of China’s research infrastructure.

The moral corruption creeps in at the institutional level. Savvy Australian universities understand that their research success in fields like mathematics, materials science and chemistry depends on maintaining their professors’ access to Thousand Talents programs. Australian universities’ well-publicised focus on China research collaboration at the vice-chancellor level should leave no doubt that university leaders are aware of this dependence. Considering that the University of Queensland wrote right into its vice-chancellor’s key performance indicators the understanding that China was “becoming the predominant provider of research globally” (note: “provider”, not “consumer”), it is clear that at least some members of the University of Queensland senate understood that Australian universities depend on China for research collaboration, not the other way around. And that dependence demands that Australian universities keep the Chinese government onside—or risk losing their access to the massive Chinese subsidies embodied in Thousand Talents research.

When the Australian newspaper broke the news that dozens of Australian university academics had been recruited to participate in China’s Thousand Talents programs, it headlined the reports, “How the CCP Recruits Our Best and Brightest”. A quick glance at the biographies of most of the scientists identified makes abundantly clear that a more accurate title would have been, “How Australia Recruits China’s Best and Brightest”. The newspaper’s follow-up report was headed, “China Exploits Australia’s Lax Laws to Sign Up Researchers for Secretive Program”. Yet the Thousand Talents program, while previously little known outside academic circles, was never secret. It openly advertised in trade journals for a decade before going quiet in 2018, going so far as to hold annual open competitions for places. Even today, foreign academics can ask to participate in Thousand Talents programs via a well-publicised online application process.

Australian parliamentary hearings on the Thousand Talents programs focused on the possibility that Commonwealth-funded research may have benefited Chinese universities. Australia’s parliamentarians seemed not to realise that the flow of research article credits from China to Australia under these programs dwarfed any possible funding leakage in the opposite direction. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) claims that China “uses talent-recruitment programs to gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means”, and no doubt this is technically correct if the Thousand Talents programs are lumped in with wider and sometimes related incidents of economic and military espionage. But although China’s Thousand Talents recruitment efforts may not be as transparent as Australian government fellowship competitions, they are far more transparent than Australian university elite recruitment programs. And they have absolutely no obligation to recruit in conformity with Australian law.

The burden of compliance for Australian university participation in Thousand Talents programs rests on the Australian universities and their professors, not on the Chinese government. Before the explosion of political interest in these programs, Australian universities seem to have chosen not to systematically track their academics’ participation in them, but that can hardly be blamed on China. Nor can it be blamed on their own ignorance: any research administrator who was unaware of Thousand Talents recruitment deserves to have been fired for not bothering to read industry trade journals. In any case, despite the massive attention directed to the Thousand Talents programs in late 2020, the drafters of the AFRA decided not to require disclosure of these programs, since they represent agreements between individual Australian professors and Chinese institutions. The Australian employers of Thousand Talents scholars—that is to say, the main beneficiaries of these arrangements—are not, formally speaking, parties to the agreements.

The University Foreign Interference Taskforce convened by the Education Minister in August 2019 did not recognise any threat from Chinese talent recruitment programs in its published guidelines. That may be because the universities themselves benefit immensely from these programs. It has been reported that at least 325 academics working for Australian institutions have received funding from China’s Thousand Talents and related programs, and possibly over 600. Nearly all of these are highly-cited scientists, and thus this number might be read in the light of the fact that Australia hosts a total of only 305 Clarivate HCRs. By heavily subsidising the research productivity of these hundreds of Australia-based academics, the Chinese government plays a major role in boosting the research rankings of Australian universities. This is a boat that any Australian vice-chancellor would be very reluctant to rock.

Have Australia’s universities been corrupted by China? Their co-dependent research relationships with China create strong incentives for them to prioritise the preservation of Chinese goodwill over reasonable expectations for propriety and due diligence. As embarrassing as it may be to have their trade body representatives offer up non-answers to parliamentary questions about their employees’ external obligations to Chinese universities, the status quo of intentional official ignorance serves their interests well. Most universities now have outside-earnings policies, but Thousand Talents arrangements may not even trigger these policies, if they involve only reimbursement for travel expenses and the provision of research facilities. Where salaries are paid, they are paid offshore, in Chinese currency to Chinese bank accounts, and are essentially untraceable. Moreover, as with the Harvard professor who got into trouble with the FBI, the only transgression in these cases is usually the failure to report the income—and in Australia, this is only a violation of university policies, not a criminal offence.

The real risk posed by Thousand Talents programs isn’t that Australian researchers will spy for China, or that Commonwealth research funds will be siphoned off to Chinese universities. It is that Australian universities will be morally corrupted by the lure of Chinese top-up funding for their most productive researchers. This corruption is facilitated by the fact that Australian universities are not legally parties to their professors’ Thousand Talents agreements. The fact that China’s Thousand Talents programs actually subsidise Australian universities is implicitly admitted by ASPI when it recommends that one strategy the Commonwealth could use to counter them is to “increase funding for the university sector and priority research areas, such as artificial intelligence, quantum science and energy storage”. That is tantamount to recommending that Australia should replace Chinese subsidies with domestic grants. In any case, what would prevent professors from taking both?

Even ASPI does not go so far as to recommend that universities prohibit their scientists from participating in Thousand Talents programs (though it does recommend that Australian government employees be barred). It does recommend mandatory disclosure. But whatever disclosure requirements might be placed on universities (and none have been placed so far), absent a blanket prohibition, universities will continue to face the seemingly irresistible temptation to benefit from these indirect Chinese research subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? Participation in Thousand Talents programs is not necessarily a bad thing, and although universities should be open about their employees’ Thousand Talents links, there seems little reason to discourage them. The real problem isn’t the Thousand Talents programs themselves. It lies much closer to home.

The primary moral threat posed by Thousand Talents and related programs is that Australian universities have become so addicted to Chinese subsidies that they compromise their principles for fear of offending China. Like Chinese student-fee income on the education side, Chinese government research support has gone from being a welcome extra fillip to being a core element of Australian universities’ operational models. It has become so important that it warrants special attention in vice-chancellors’ performance indicators. The high international rankings of Australian universities, particularly Group of Eight universities, are so contingent on indirect Chinese research subsidies that many universities now go to great lengths to avoid alienating the Chinese government. This has nothing to do with national security. It has much more to do with national values.

Australian universities’ attentiveness to the feelings of the Chinese government has been demonstrated in a series of minor, but telling, public incidents. As far back as 2013, when the University of Sydney invited the Dalai Lama to speak on campus (something that would once have been considered a major coup), sensitivity to Chinese government disapprobation has been on full display at Australian universities. Sydney first prohibited the display of university branding at the event, then moved the event off campus, and finally (under immense public scrutiny) moved the event back on campus, but in a limited venue without public access. Although the university never offered any credible rationale for these repeated backflips, appearances by the Tibetan spiritual leader are widely known to provoke stern Chinese disapproval. In a farcical replay, though on a smaller scale, UNSW in 2020 deleted social media posts promoting an article on its website that highlighted criticisms of China’s human rights record, then temporarily deleted the article itself, then reinstated the article amidst a barrage of criticism—but placed it on a less prominent webpage. Much more seriously, the University of Queensland in 2021 faced parliamentary scrutiny after it expelled a student in connection with incidents arising from his protests against Chinese government repression in Hong Kong.

Such incidents are only the tip of the iceberg, representing many more potential incidents that never occur because universities have learned to carefully self-censor China-sensitive content before it has the chance to appear. They are amateur mistakes. On their face, they almost make it seem as if the China-linked suppression of intellectual freedom at Australian universities is very rare: three minor incidents occurring over the course of a decade hardly make for an alarming trend. And it is true that these three incidents are “the” three incidents that are repeatedly trotted out as evidence of university acquiescence to Chinese government pressure. But, ironically, the most damning evidence is the absence of evidence: despite the fact that the Chinese government regularly (and very publicly) expresses its displeasure over even the smallest of perceived slights, only three such incidents have come to light at Australian universities over the course of a decade or more. The very scarcity of such incidents suggests that a staggering level of continuous behavioural self-regulation is going on behind the scenes.

Efforts to eliminate undue Chinese influence over Australian universities by requiring the universities to disclose their China links are doomed to fail. Even a more robust disclosure mechanism than that provided by the AFRA would do little to reshape university behaviour, since the relationships that would be disclosed are not, of themselves, embarrassing or inappropriate. Nor would the closure of university-based Confucius Institutes or the cancellation of other formal agreements do anything to change university behaviour—or the incentives that shape it. If Australian governments (Commonwealth and state) want to ensure that Australian public universities are not corrupted by Chinese influence, they should appoint serving politicians as their representatives on university senates, require that these politicians serve on executive compensation committees, and publish the performance indicators against which the performance of university executives is evaluated. A tautology it may be, but public accountability is the key to keeping universities accountable to the public.

China hasn’t gained influence over Australian universities through its student flows, its Confucius Institutes, or even its research subsidies. It has gained influence through the lack of public accountability of Australian university leaders. Australian universities receive far more funding from the Australian government than they could ever hope to receive from China. But however much they may protest Commonwealth “underfunding” and chafe at ministerial interventions in grant decisions, Australian universities know full well that their baseline Australian government funding is never at risk. Australian governments have long accepted the unequal division of labour under which the taxpayer writes the cheques and the universities cash them, subject to only the broadest arms-length oversight. The Chinese government, by contrast, embraces no such principles of university autonomy, and demands full accountability for the limited support it provides to Australian universities. The battle for the soul of Australian public universities is a tug-of-war of accountability, and unless Australian governments start pulling their weight, China will win.

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