A pro-Hong Kong rally at the University of Queensland in Australia last week turned ugly after a violent group of pro-Beijing students crashed the event and attacked the pro-democracy demonstrators.
The incident blew up into a diplomatic crisis on Wednesday when the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane praised the “spontaneous patriotic behavior of the Chinese students” and lauded them for attacking the “anti-China separatists.”
— Nilsson Jones (@nilssonjones_) July 24, 2019
Australia has a sizable population of students from both mainland China and Hong Kong. The confrontation at the University of Queensland last Wednesday began after a group of students from Hong Kong organized a rally to show their support for the protesters back home and declare their opposition to the extradition bill that sparked massive demonstrations in Hong Kong.
“We didn’t say anything about independence or anything like that,” said 22-year-old organizer Phoebe Fan, refuting an increasingly common charge from mainland China and its loyalists in Hong Kong that the protesters are a stealth secession movement.
Another organizer, 21-year-old Christy Leung, said she was assaulted by a man who grabbed a poster out of her hand and attempted to choke one of the male students who moved to protect her.
A separate group of Australian students organized another rally at the same university earlier in the day, expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters and condemning China for forcing much of the Muslim population of Xinjiang province into concentration camps.
Both of these rallies were violently attacked by larger groups of pro-China students, as reported by the BBC:
One Australian student, Drew Pavlou, said he was left with a chipped tooth and bruising to his ribs after one clash. He said he had since received death threats online and has had to be accompanied by a security guard to classes.
Ms Fan and Ms Leung say such harassment has also continued off campus. They have found pictures of themselves being shared on Chinese social media sites next to threatening messages. Ms Fan said one comment warned she would “face consequences”.
One of their friends was also “doxxed” – personal information including his passport, marriage certificate and student ID details were posted online. “Don’t worry, there won’t be a peaceful life for him in Brisbane,” read an accompanying caption on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
“I’m feeling very disturbed and mostly scared because I’m not sure what they’re going to do to me,” Ms Fan said. However, she still plans on attending further protests.
Cell-phone videos captured the Beijing-friendly counter-protesters starting fights.
The pro-Chinese students did not do themselves any favors when the BBC and Australian media contacted them for comment. One of them blamed the pro-Hong Kong students for insisting on holding their rally even after they were threatened with violence. “They held the event, they caused everything … they tried to make us angry,” he said.
Beijing’s volunteer junior thug squad followed up by demanding an apology from the university for allowing the pro-democracy rallies to occur. According to the BBC, the petition has accumulated over 3,000 signatures.
On Monday, a group of Hong Kong-supporting students attempted to create a “Lennon Wall” – a wall covered with Post-It notes – on campus at the University of Auckland in New Zealand when three male pro-Beijing students violently confronted them. A female student was shoved to the ground by the thugs during the confrontation after they called her a “pig” who “cannot understand human language” because she could not speak Mandarin Chinese:
Latest for @dw_chinese – I was able to get in touch with Serena, the female student at @AucklandUni who was surrounded by three male students from #China and later assaulted by one of them when she tried to stop situation from escalating. pic.twitter.com/sBWYhuen2q
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) July 30, 2019
According to these students, they have tried to create Lennon Walls on two previous occasions, with permission from campus authorities, but vandals destroyed them again.
“Physically, I am not injured, but inside me, I am shocked and shaken,” said the student, 27-year-old Serena Lee. “The proposed law in Hong Kong could see the end of the city as we know it and our individual freedom, but I was stunned when people in New Zealand are also trying to shut down our freedom of expression.”
Xu Jie, the Chinese consul-general stationed in Brisbane, praised the “spontaneous patriotic behavior” of the pro-Beijing students who attacked the University of Queensland demonstration, denouncing the peaceful rally they attacked as an insidious effort to “create opposition between Chinese and Hong Kong students and incite anti-China sentiment.”
This prompted warnings from Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne that China must respect free speech rights in Australia, “even on contentious and sensitive issues.”
Payne said the Australian government “would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behavior.”
The New York Times quoted concerns from Australia that “more collisions with China’s muscular nationalism now seem likely,” especially since Australian students are discovering their schools have forged uncomfortably close ties with the Chinese Communist Party. According to the Times:
While the University of Queensland is one of several universities with a Confucius Institute — officially a program to promote Chinese language and culture — the vice chancellor, Peter Hoj, has made more of that relationship than his peers have.
The institute at the university plays a broader role, emphasizing collaboration with China in science, engineering and technology. Until late last year, Mr. Hoj was an unpaid consultant for the Confucius Institute headquarters. This month, he granted a visiting professorship to the Chinese consul general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, bringing a Communist Party official into university life at a time when the United States, Canada and several European countries have cut ties.
“It’s part of this China illiteracy, which is quite prevalent in Australia,” said Louisa Lim, a professor at the University of Melbourne and the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.”
“In many cases,” she said, “the allure of Chinese investment and large numbers of Chinese students has been so overwhelming that educational institutions have just thrown their arms wide open without doing their due diligence.”
The South China Morning Post noted that the Auckland University of Technology canceled an event last month that would have marked the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre due to a request from Chinese officials.
“Last year, three planned screenings of the documentary In the Name of Confucius, which explores the controversies surrounding the Chinese government’s Confucius Institute program in universities and schools around the world, were canceled by Auckland University after issues of ‘reputational damage’ were raised,” the SCMP added.