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Fact check: Chinese students in Australian universities caught in political crossfire

Australian universities
Australian officials and leading universities rejected China's claims students should be "cautious" in choosing to study Down Under because of concerns over racist incidents during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: William West/AFP

Chinese students in Australian universities have feared for months that they would be caught in between an ongoing political dispute between Beijing and Canberra.

In the latest development, China has cautioned its international students to reconsider studying in Australia.

Why and how is this happening? Here’s the lowdown.

Australian universities

Chinese students make up 28% of the 750,000 international students in Australia. Source: Shutterstock

How did it start?

The tension between the two nations began when China’s ambassador to Australia made a comment in response to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origin of COVID-19.

Cheng Jingye told theAustralian Financial Review, “People would think, why should we go to such a country that is not friendly to China? The parents of the students would… think whether this place which they’ve found is even hostile is the best place to send their kids.”

Then, China hit Australia with several import limitations but denied that it was economic retaliation.

All this took place while a travel ban keeping 100,000 Chinese students away from their Australian universities stayed firmly in place.

Why is China warning students about Australian universities?

On June 9, the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China issued a statement officially following through on its warning to Australian universities.

The statement read, “The spread of the new global COVID-19 outbreak has not been effectively controlled, and there are risks in international travel and open campuses. During the epidemic, there were multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia.”

“The Ministry of Education reminds all overseas students to do a risk assessment and is currently cautious in choosing to study in Australia or return to Australia.”

Australian universities

Australian officials and leading universities rejected China’s claims students should be “cautious” in choosing to study Down Under because of concerns over racist incidents during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: William West/AFP

Are racist attacks a real threat?

Chinese students make up 28% of the 750,000 international students in Australia. An expert estimates that Australian universities could lose 12 billion Australia dollars over the next two years without Chinese students.

In fact, there have been reports of racists attacks on Asian people in Australia since the pandemic began. ABC News Australia details how a Chinese woman was spat on in a Sydney street, and two students attacked in Melbourne.

Despite these reports, Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the Chinese embassy maintains the opposite.

She explained, “We have asked the Chinese embassy are there incidents that they are aware of that we need to know about because if there are we need to be working together to resolve them. They have been unable to provide us with that advice because they advise us there are no cases.”

What do Australian universities say?

Besides Thomson, Education Minister Dan Tehan has also spoken out to reject China’s claims.

He quoted Australia’s “successful, multicultural society” and “success at flattening the curve” in his defense of Australian universities.

Thomson expressed that China’s warning is disappointing and unjustified.

“So it is concerning that, yet again, international education, and particularly with China, is yet again the pawn in a political game that is not of our making,” she said.

According to a 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission report, one in four Australians were born overseas and around half of the population has at least one parent born overseas.

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