Chinese Studies in Australian Universities: A Problem of Balance

Chinese Studies in Australian Universities: A Problem of Balance

The global field of Chinese Studies has expanded greatly in line with the rise of China to become the world’s second largest economy. However, this trend is less apparent in Australia, where the domestic enrolment in Chinese Studies and postgraduate level training has been relatively constrained.  Where Chinese programs are expanding in enrolment, this is often the result of large numbers of international Chinese students enrolling in their native language in fulfilment of optional subject requirements, or seeking courses in translation.  The result is that Australia still has too few Australian China specialists to meet the national need for expert engagement with our largest trading partner.

 According to a survey of academics teaching Chinese studies in Australian universities conducted in October 2019, the large number of Chinese (PRC) native-speaker enrolments are a mixed blessing. The international students bring in welcome fees to the Universities but, in the case of Chinese language programs, this can have a dampening effect on the participation of domestic students. The major G08 universities based in Sydney and Melbourne have huge Chinese language programs, bolstered by significant numbers of international students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese language programs in G08 universities outside Sydney and Melbourne, particularly those outside NSW and Victoria, report fewer PRC enrolments. In some cases these smaller programs are harder to sustain.

It is also reported that political controversies have influenced the teaching of Chinese language, China-related studies, and the research environment. In this shifting environment, new initiatives are needed to bolster Australia’s China-related expertise.

Enrolment Trends

In Australia’s market-driven university system, Chinese language programs do not exclude native speakers of Chinese, as is customary elsewhere. Leading Western universities such as Georgetown exclude native Chinese speakers from their courses. This means they can dedicate their resources to the teaching of students with no background or less than native background in Chinese. In Australia the approach is quite the contrary, institutions in Sydney and Melbourne have developed specialist courses for Chinese native speakers, including Masters courses in professional translation, which are highly lucrative.

In many Asian Studies departments across the country, it is PRC enrolments in Chinese and Japanese that underpin the sustainability of other Asian language programs, Asian Studies, and disciplines such as linguistics. The financial viability of numerous courses beyond Chinese now depend on revenue generated by the popularity of Chinese and Japanese language programs with the PRC student cohort.

A Chinese language program on a major Sydney or Melbourne campus may well comprise over 1,000 students. Most would be Australians of Chinese background or students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Students of non-Chinese background generally comprise a small component of the overall enrolment and a dwindling number in advanced classes. This compares with the situation of several decades ago, when the major enrolment comprised non-Chinese background Australian students. A number of respondents reported on a declining domestic student enrolment:

“The number of local students in Chinese language studies/ Chinese studies has obviously decreased in the past five years” (a Sydney GO8 university)

Large Chinese programs are increasingly taught by sessional staff.

“We don’t really have enough staff to match the large numbers of students enrolled in Humanities and Languages, but we are buttressed by a raft of casuals” (a Sydney G08 university).

Outside Sydney and Melbourne, or in non-G08 universities, Chinese programs have fewer PRC enrolments and are much smaller in size. With little growth in the domestic student body:

“It is difficult to sustain China-related courses because student numbers are so small”.

“Chinese studies at my institution is in terminal decline..”.

In small or amalgamated programs, Chinese and non-Chinese students often find themselves in the same class.

“The influx of international students has made many non-Chinese people believe that it’s impossibly unfair for them to study Chinese”. 

Another problem is “growing negative sentiments towards China and the lack of clear pathways and job opportunities” for China Study graduates.

Doubts were raised about the long-term sustainability of Chinese programs that are largely propped up by enrolments of students from the PRC:

“Enrolments of mainland Chinese students are already declining and it is this revenue that sustains teaching and research on historical and contemporary China.”

 “There are so many other international competitors and Australian universities don’t have much that is special to offer.”

With perceived decline in domestic enrolments in Chinese language and studies at advanced and postgraduate levels, there is concern at the loss of Australian expertise on China:

“We have seen the gradual hollowing out of the deep language and cultural expertise on China in Australia. Increasingly those Australians who speak to us about China don’t know the language, nor have they spent extended time studying its history, culture and politics”.

Initiatives and constraints

After a period of job loss and cost-cutting, the ANU has revamped the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) with new appointments in the Bell School and the School of Culture, History and Language.  Other universities have also set up China Centres (eg, the Universities of Sydney, Melbourne and La Trobe). UNSW has set up a research network, ‘China plus Central Asia’ (Silk Roads@UNSW) to complement its existing ‘China plus Pacific’ orientation. The University of Melbourne has appointed new China-focus staff in the social sciences and translation studies. La Trobe University is setting up a joint research hub with Shanghai’s East China Normal University.

Many universities have Confucius Institutes (CI). For some respondents, the CI are a positive development as they provide an extra source of funds. However, other universities are reconsidering their current contracts as they come up for renewal. One respondent reported that their current contract “cedes curriculum and academic controls to Beijing”. It is also noted that universities in Australia have refused so far to register their CI under the foreign influence transparency scheme (FITS).

Institutional constraints on the introduction of new subjects and an increase in teaching load can crimp innovation and diversity in subject offerings. Institutions are often unhappy about running “small” courses (for example, fewer than 80 students for first or second year). Subject cuts can lead to “broader courses at the expense of focused ones” and less incentive for Honours and postgraduate study. One major urban campus reported a drop in the number and range of subjects offered at postgraduate level due to closure of subjects with fewer than 25 enrolments. According to one respondent, “Growth in subject offerings in China studies has been limited to International Relations and policy-related areas…humanities has suffered the biggest contraction.”

In some cases, non-background and background speakers are amalgamated in upper level Chinese classes, resulting in a sub-optimal teaching situation.  In one G08 university, the dissolution of a Centre for Asian Studies and its replacement with a Department led to a relative loss of autonomy and decline in resources. Subsequently, staff levels in China studies declined significantly.

Research Trends

Globally there has been a huge increase in the number of academics who specialize in China and in the number of journals dealing with China. The growth of online databases has opened up new avenues of research in Chinese studies. However, in Australia, fewer new appointments have led to deficits in expertise. For example, Australia has very few scholars researching elite politics in China, partly because it is difficult to carry out field research at that level.

The study of China is now seen to be more contentious:

“Polarization in research is more likely to worsen than not”.

 “Collaboration with PRC universities is dying because of the academic climate in China”.

Researchers can experience difficulty in obtaining visas for fieldwork in ‘sensitive areas’. Academics are now more reluctant to invite PRC speakers. Post-graduate students are facing increasing intimidation and harassment when they attend conferences or engage in field-work in China. This can include being followed when in China, being called in for interrogation, being having data wiped from their electronic devices, and demands that they discontinue their research. Australian postgraduates targeted in these cases may decide to change their research interests away from the PRC.  PRC citizens enrolled in Australian post-graduate degrees experience particular problems. They may not even be in a position to publish their dissertation for fear of retribution from their home country.

Political sensitivities

In recent years Sino-Australia relations have taken a battering due to a series of controversies about alleged Chinese interference in Australian political, business and educational institutions; suspected Chinese cyber-espionage;  the rejection of 5G technology from the Chinese company Huawei; and the operations of the Chinese United Front within the Australian community. Some universities have seen contentious politics spill out in violent campus confrontations (eg the University of Queensland, as detailed in an October 2019 Four Corners report, Red Flags). However, this sort of physical confrontation has been rare on Australian campuses. PRC students increasingly engage in “patriotic” outbursts of collective rage on Chinese social media, particularly WeChat (see below).

Respondents reported many positive aspects of their engagement with PRC students. When PRC students can be successfully engaged in classroom activities, working together with Australian students, the interaction can be fruitful for both sides.

 One respondent noted that the English level of PRC students has improved in recent years. Students from China are a positive resource in the classroom: “I really believe they improve the learning environment for other students, particularly when studying China. But there are some outliers who are actually bolstered by the growing anti-Chinese rhetoric in Australian media and use it as evidence of Cold War thinking and all the usual tropes.”

“My university has a fairly conservative student body, so there is no large student activism on campus either pro or anti-China. I have noticed that the Confucius Institute has been very quiet of late” (major urban campus)

When there are conflicts within the student body concerning the Communist Party line, this is not necessarily a matter of ‘foreign interference’.  One respondent expressed frustration with “sensationalist [Australian] media, something not seen since the White Australian policy and the Cold War Reds under the Bed”.

On the other hand, in cases where PRC students dominate in the classroom, it can be challenging to teach in line with Australian norms of academic freedom and open enquiry:

It has become increasingly difficult to have meaningful discussions on anything controversial in class. Many students are afraid to speak out and come to my office to speak privately regularly. Students have both complained about student ‘spies’ in the classroom and also that they feel accused of this themselves (a G08 university teaching a course for Chinese native speakers).

It is now more difficult to teach about politically sensitive events such as the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square (otherwise known as the June Fourth Incident): “I am much more cautious with what I say in class. I try to say as little as possible about controversial topics to avoid attacks and negative comments from students who dislike China and those who love China.” Another respondent observed: “it is becoming increasingly common to see collective outbursts of rage towards any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] or more recently, support of the 2019 Hong Kong protests… I have experienced displays of violence and bullying behavior motivated by Chinese patriotism and nationalism”.

PRC students in Australia are heavily engaged with Chinese social media. This can exacerbate a sensitive situation. According to one respondent, the “Australian Red Scarf” group on WeChat [Chinese Facebook] “often publishes unverified and untruthful reports inciting fear, distrust and hatred towards Australia and Australian institutions.”  Further, PRC students are offered financial inducements from the Chinese government to carry out “patriotic action” in Australia (that is, defending the party line on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Seas, and so on). Sometimes Australian lecturers can be called on to “apologize” for statements not in keeping with the Party line.

University leadership is finding it increasingly challenging to engage with China: “I do not believe Australian universities are prepared for Chinese interference, especially when it is exercised in a more covert manner”. Institutions are increasingly adopting “a risk-averse strategy towards China”. According to another respondent, “management and scholars self-censor, scared of making public comments on anything related to China”.  Academics sometimes meet with direct obstruction from their own home institution: “I had a China event cancelled, threats from the state government, and pressure brought to bear on my area of interest”. Universities are currently conducting audits of their STEM collaborations with China in the light of recent revelations about undue foreign influence in funded collaborations.

For Chinese-background colleagues based in Australia, the current situation is particularly difficult:

 “I am scared of getting the rough end of the stick both as a panda hugger and as an ‘anti-China’ scholar. There has been no balance with issues related to ‘China’, certainly not in Australian universities…The present situation will continue until such time as people globally draw a clear line between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese people and the Chinese diaspora in general (this is starting).”


Australian universities should be encouraged to ensure that their Chinese studies programs meet Australia’s national need for a broader and deeper range of China expertise. The current focus on using these programs to make money out of the international student market is leading to a neglect of what should be the core function of our universities, that is, the education of the next generation of Australians to meet the challenges of engagement with the dominant power in our part of the world.

With regard to political sensitivities, administrations should be encouraged to strengthen existing institutional frameworks to safeguard the democratic rights of the academic and student body. For example, problems with student behavior on campus or in the classroom could be ameliorated by the effective implementation of Student Codes of Behaviour. Universities should continue to hold public events on controversial topics, even at the risk of offending China. Academic staff who are standing up for academic freedom on their own campus need to know that their university will support them.

Australia needs to encourage more domestic students to specialize in advanced and postgraduate China-focus programs of study. Specific initiatives should be considered to bolster Honours and postgraduate enrolments in China-related fields. These initiatives could include scholarships for Honours and post-graduate students in China studies, and the establishment of one or two well-resourced Masters in Chinese Studies, incorporating disciplinary training with in-country language study.

This report was originally prepared for the Review of the Field of Asian Studies 2000-2020, ASAA Workshop, Australian National University, 22 November 2019. The survey is based on sixteen responses from seasoned academics teaching Chinese Studies at Australian universities. They were asked about the state of the field in their home institution.  All states (and the ACT) were represented. In this report direct quotations from respondents have been de-identified for reasons of political sensitivity.

Anne McLaren is Professor in Chinese Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. Her main research interest is Chinese popular culture from the late imperial to the contemporary period, with a focus on the oral and ritual traditions of Chinese women, Chinese performance arts, traditional popular fiction, print culture in late imperial China and Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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