Australian universities risk giving away the game to China in the uphill battle to defend our national security
Information security has come into sharp focus for the millions of Telstra, Optus and Medibank customers who have had their personal data stolen and in a number of cases leaked by hackers.
Last year Australian Security Intelligence Organization director-general Mike Burgess said the relentless and daily cyber-attacks against the nation were “sophisticated and widespread” and took place “in every state and territory, targeting all levels of government, as well as industry and academia”.
Australia faces an ongoing and uphill battle to defend national security with data hacking and information security an ever-growing front of conflict, but we must ask ourselves are our universities already giving the game away?
Over the past decade, China’s communist regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars setting up “Confucius Institutes” at Western universities, with the total number worldwide peaking at 550 in 2018.
According to China, the Confucius Institutes are “a bridge that strengthens friendship” with its neighbors by offering language and cultural programs to foreign students.
Since its peak in 2018, many Confucius Institutes have closed their doors due to a successful international campaign to expose them for what they really are – propaganda machines that, under the guise of teaching, disrupt free speech on campus, spy on students and steal sensitive research. .
However, a recent report released by the US National Association of Scholars found that: “many once defunct Confucius Institutes (CIs) have since re-emerged in other forms”.
Even worse, it found that “the most popular reason institutions give when closing a CI is to replace it with a new Chinese partnership program.”
The report concluded that there was not a single case of the 104 US tertiary institutions reviewed where they could “classify any university as having closed its Confucius Institute”.
Such a finding is very likely appropriate for the many Australian tertiary institutions that have entered into “alliances”, “collaborations” and “partnerships” with Chinese universities to replace the broken Confucius brand.
These agreements bear a striking resemblance to defunct Confucius Institutes.
For example, RMIT’s Confucius Institute closed in 2020, but it appears to have been reborn as the China-Australia International Research Center for Chinese Medicine in partnership with the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.
Charles Sturt University partners with Chinese universities through the Office of Global Engagement and Partnerships to deliver programs with Chinese universities.
Federation University is one of six Australian universities to have a major information technology center approved by Hebei University in China.
Six of Australia’s Group of Eight universities, the University of Western Australia, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, the University of Adelaide and the University of Melbourne continue to host Confucius Institutes on campus.
At its peak, Australia had 14 Confucius Institutes and 67 Confucius Classrooms operating in primary and secondary schools.
This ranked Australia third globally after the US and UK.
China’s subversive campaign against tertiary institutions faced a setback when many Confucius Institutes were forced to close between 2019 and 2022 as people woke up to the threat they presented.
In Australia, following the federal government’s introduction of new foreign veto powers in 2021, the number has fallen, but the potential for foreign interference remains high.
Today, there are still 11 Confucius Institutes on our campuses, and almost every Australian university has a close research partnership or research center focused on collaborative scholarship with China.
The international campaign against the Confucius Institutes has been very successful, but it seems that the CCP’s attempts to exert influence and carry out intelligence gathering in our universities are still as strong as ever.
Many Australians will believe that the committee’s recommendations do not go far enough or address the threat they face.
China is by no means the only threat to our information security, but as it becomes increasingly aggressive in our region, we cannot underestimate its subversive operations taking place on our shores, in our networks.
Our universities house our wealth of knowledge and research, which is hard-won and world-leading.
We need our university leaders to ensure that they do not give away the game and weaken our national security by allowing themselves to be stolen from our knowledge.
Brianna McKee is a fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.