• Campus confrontations have erupted from Canada to New Zealand as mainland Chinese students react, sometimes violently, to public scrutiny of Beijing’s policies.
  • Such conflict is likely to persist as Chinese diplomatic missions support robust rebuttals to those who disagree with China’s stance.

creative but controversial meme has been racking up likes on a Facebook page titled SFU Dank Memes, a private group frequented by more than 3,700 students at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University (SFU).

It features a Photoshopped image of a duplicitous masked operative from the popular video game Team Fortress 2 and an accompanying caption that reads: “Try to figure out who’s the Chinese communist spy at SFU when half the school is Chinese. And worst of all, he could be any one of us.”

Communist Spy in SFU - meme from Team Fortress 2.JPG

There are 1.5 million Chinese students studying outside the country who have found themselves thrust into the spotlight at university campuses from Australia to New Zealand to Canada. Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests, sometimes unruly, have rocked the city since June and have renewed international scrutiny of Beijing’s policies.

At the University of Queensland in Brisbane, mainland Chinese students last month came to blows with a group supporting the Hong Kong protests when the latter held a demonstration on campus.

The group, comprising of Hong Kong and Australian students, also condemned China’s mass incarceration of ethnic Uygurs in its far western region of Xinjiang. Mainland Chinese make up about 9,000 of the university’s 50,000-strong student population.

Meanwhile, at the Australian National University in Canberra and University of New South Wales in Sydney, local Lennon Walls have also been vandalised or become the site of verbal clashes.

And in New Zealand, at the University of Auckland, where mainland Chinese students make up about 10 per cent of the student body, a man made headlines last month when he was captured on film pushing a female Hongkonger to the ground after an argument over a Lennon Wall.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protests have been a source of division among Chinese. Photo Edmond So

Hong Kong’s anti-government protests have been a source of division among Chinese. Photo: Edmond So

Sophie Yang studies public relations at the University of Queensland said the demonstrations at her university had left her feeling caught between warring factions.

“They are forcing people to pick sides,” she said. “You are either pro-democracy, pro-human rights, or you are pro-China. They are putting us in this awkward position.

More than 140,000 study at Canadian higher-learning institutions, where they pay an average of C$27,159 (US$20,400) per year in tuition – over four times that of Canadians.

Australia plays host to more than 135,000 mainland Chinese students, and New Zealand almost 30,000.

Hong Kong and mainland students clash at a pro-democracy protest at the University of Queensland in Australia..jpg

Hong Kong and mainland students clash at a pro-democracy protest at the University of Queensland in Australia.


At SFU in Vancouver, Hong Kong student Karen Chu said she had on several occasions overheard expressions of anger from mainland Chinese students on campus.

She recalled one saying “Hong Kong people are pigs”, and calling Hongkongers ungrateful even though China gave them “ample resources and money for them to continue functioning as a city”.



For others, the gulf in understanding between cultures is too big to bridge. Rebecca Zhang, who studies English in Toronto, said the mainland’s state-controlled media only portrayed positive images of the country, while the press in the West did exactly the opposite.


“We’re in an awkward position here,” she said of students from the mainland.

“When I go back to China, I can’t relate all the things that happen in Canada because people there can’t understand these experiences I’ve had.”


“[It is] a divide between the students and people in Hong Kong, as well as the divide between China and the West,” said Gang Li, a China-born scholar and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia.


“The underlying issue is about a conflict of values. Hongkongers hold the values of liberal democracies – human rights, freedom of speech, all those things … but the word ‘democracy’ in mainland China has many different meanings, so it’s very hard for mainland Chinese students to have a unified understanding of what democracy and freedom of speech are.”


Li said most mainland Chinese usually did not experience outright racism in Canadian society, but did at the institutional level. “Vancouver is actually one of the most unwelcoming cities in Canada,” he said.


The region had a long history of anti-immigration policies, Li added, ranging from the Chinese head tax between 1885 and 1923 to the 2016 addition of vacancy and foreign buyers taxes, which increased levies by 15 per cent.


“They definitely don’t like us, but Vancouver has a large number of Chinese and they can’t do anything about it, so they just raise the taxes.”

Ma Xianghui, a PhD student at the University of Sydney, said Chinese students had been unfairly painted with a broad brush as spies for Beijing.

Chinese students in Australia have long grappled with accusations that local universities have lowered academic standards and accepted applicants with minimal English skills to cash in on lucrative international tuition fees, which account for one-third or more of revenues at top institutions such as the University of Sydney and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, or RMIT.


Mocking memes aside, law enforcement agencies, the media and academics in the West have documented numerous cases of Chinese students allegedly being directed by Beijing.

Although Australia, New Zealand and Canada have yet to launch any comparable crackdown, they are similarly grappling with concerns about migrants being weaponised by Beijing. A Chinese Ministry of Education directive issued in 2016 called for the mobilisation of overseas students as a “positive patriotic energy”.


The student who vandalised the Lennon Wall at Simon Fraser University is seen on camera.jpg

The student who vandalised the Lennon Wall at Simon Fraser University is seen on camera. 

Beijing’s influence is on display through some 150 campus organisations that are chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), some of which receive partial government funding for events.

Billed as a student-led group to help adjust to life abroad, American media reports claim to have seen CSSA members in WeChat conversations coordinating with consular officials to rally students for political ends.

Examples include attendance at a protest against a visit by the Dalai Lama to the University of California in San Diego in 2017, and the disruption of a talk by a Uygur activist at McMaster University in British Columbia earlier this year.

“They throw parties and provide rides for new mainland Chinese students, but they also serve as a powerful socialising and monitoring function, where new mainlanders learn that they do not enjoy all the freedoms other students at international universities have,” said Anders Corr, a geopolitical analyst who has written about the influence of these student associations on Western university campuses.

“Chinese students must still promote a positive image of China.”

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomatic missions have made no secret of their support for students promoting Beijing’s line abroad.

After last month’s clashes at the University of Queensland, the consulate in Brisbane issued a statement in Chinese condemning Hong Kong students for “talk of separatism” and “igniting anger and sparking protests”. It praised counter-demonstrators for their “acts of patriotism”.

In New Zealand, after scuffles at the University of Auckland, the city’s consulate lauded students backing Beijing for their “spontaneous acts and deeds out of their love of China and love of Hong Kong”.

One of those demonstrators had pushed a Hong Kong student to the ground during the melee.

“The Chinese government clearly encourages and expects ‘patriotic’ students to counter any sensitive political activities,” said Alex Joske, an expert on Communist Party influence at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank.

Joske, who has co-written a submission to the Australian parliament detailing examples of Chinese influence on campuses, said universities had for too long “tolerated or ignored the Chinese government’s efforts to influence and establish organisations for Chinese students”.

His submission cites a CSSA event at which students were warned of the “five poisons”. These were said to be democracy activists as well as separatists and human rights campaigners for Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, along with Falun Gong practitioners.



With rising numbers of Chinese going overseas to study, coupled with growing global scrutiny of how Beijing exercises its power, conflicts involving students abroad are likely to persist, some observers say. Others believe the problem will be compounded by a soft stance from universities on freedom of speech.


“For the life of me, I can’t begin to understand why universities have essentially pretended these events did not happen, failing to punish anyone involved,” said Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University in Melbourne.

“If a group of white students threatened or beat black protesters, it would be a source of outrage.

Why do universities look the other way when Chinese students do this to Uygur, Tibetan, Hong Kong or Taiwanese students?”

Joske, the ASPI researcher, said universities had more work to do in encouraging discussion and dialogue in a “respectful and peaceful way”.


“Universities have tolerated or ignored the Chinese government’s efforts to influence and establish organisations, which appears to be contributing to recent conflicts,” he said. “They should take a strong line on all cases of intimidation or harassment. Students who use violence to silence others should not be tolerated.”

“To me, one important goal of higher education is to make learners critical, not radical.”

#RobertReview (Mainland Chinese Students): 9.5 | 10

An excellent article on Mainland Chinese international students.


Hong Kong protests to Uygur camps: how Chinese students became a subject of scorn

Published: 11th August 2019.
Updated: 25th August 2019.




Read related articles >>  #EducateYourselfAboutHongKongProtests  >>

Ian Hall, an international relations professor at the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane, said universities had been caught off guard by the recent clashes and were yet to wake up to the “problems inherent in having Chinese student groups effectively run and funded by PRC embassies and consulates”.

If nationalist mainlanders can threaten Hongkongers, they can threaten anyone who they do not agree with.

“Universities play a key role in defending core values, and they are not doing enough. Serious consequences such as expulsion are needed.”

“Hong Kong people won’t stop, because we think what we are fighting for is right and the truth,” Sarah Wang said.


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