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Vice-chancellor in Sydney calls claim "Sinophobic blatherings"
The vice-chancellor of one of Australia"s leading universities has spoken out against the claims of the country"s government that foreign spies have infiltrated the campuses of Australian universities.
Michael Spence of the University of Sydney said the government was making "Sinophobic blatherings" in its attempt to take a tougher stand against foreign interference in domestic politics. He made the comment in a recent interview with Weekend Financial Review.
He said the claims "have no foundation" and were putting at risk a significant sector of the economy.
Tertiary education, fed by foreign students, was Australia"s third-largest "export" industry in 2016-17. Education accounted for over half of Australia"s export trade to China.
In 2017, the government claimed that China was using students as spies on Australian campuses. It is also planning to introduce a foreign interference law to curb what it sees as undue influence exerted by foreign governments on internal affairs.
The proposed law comes after a major political scandal in 2017, which saw the resignation of high-profile Labor Senator Sam Dastyari over claims he had been "bought" by a Chinese businessman with connections to the Chinese government. The senator has denied the claims.
Spence told China Daily he was not prepared to comment on the proposed legislation. "But what concerns me are the allegations made by the Australian government about the influence of China in Australian university life.
"Frankly, I just don"t see any evidence of this," said Spence, head of Australia"s oldest university, with a student body of 67,000 and 15,000 overseas Chinese students that pay high fees.
While Chinese student numbers have not changed, "the chatter on Chinese social media is starting to question whether or not Australia is such a friendly place to be", he said. "That is a worrying development as we have not seen that before. Chinese students have always seen us as an open, welcoming country."
The University of Sydney has over 250 researchers working with their Chinese counterparts on issues including healthcare, engineering and economics.
Spence said the university has students from 120 different countries. "Not all those countries hold the same political values as we do. And it is true some of those countries take an interest in their students abroad. My job is to make sure there is no undue influence on students or academics and to create an environment where they are free to speak.
" Students have different points of view and we provide the space for that diversity of opinion and freedom to express those opinions. You may not agree with them but that is the whole point of a university."
Stressing the university"s commitment to academic freedom, Spence said, "Our experience with Chinese officials and the Chinese Ministry of Education has been excellent and they understand our commitment to academic freedom."
He added that the Chinese government is investing "huge sums of money" in medical and scientific research.
"It is important that we leverage our relationship with Chinese researchers. When you are trying to cure cancer, for example, geopolitics doesn"t come into it. These are issues common to our region. If we don"t take part, we will be left behind."
Spence said the university has not heard anything official from China about the current debate on the proposed law, but unofficially, he added, "we are hearing people are baffled by the Australian government."
"They are asking: Why after such a long and close relationship is the university sector being treated with such suspicion by the Australian government?"