The University of New South Wales needs to clarify for foreign students “what academic freedom in Australia means”, the director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, has said, after the university partially removed an article about Hong Kong from its website and deleted a Twitter post promoting it.
The controversy followed complaints from Chinese students, a campaign on Weibo and articles criticising the university in the state-owned newspaper the Global Times.
The article has now been reinstated on the law faculty news page, but not on the main university website.
Pearson, who is an adjunct lecturer at the university, commented in the article on the imposition of China’s National Security Law in Hong Kong, saying: “Liberal democracies who are concerned about these extraordinary actions, that really fly in the face of Hong Kong’s basic law, need to call out the Chinese government for what they are doing.”
Pearson did not write the article, but was interviewed by the university’s media team, who had approached her for her views.
“I am worried that some students or Chinese Communist party supporters can bully the university into removing this sort of material,” Pearson told the Guardian.
“Obviously standing up for human rights is not something that is controversial in Australia,” she said.
“The university needs to clarify for foreign students what academic freedom in Australia means.”
The education minister, Dan Tehan, declined to comment directly on the case on Monday, but said in a statement that freedom of speech was “a pillar of our democracy”.
“Universities should be institutions that protect freedom of speech, debate and the challenge of ideas.”
The controversy has raised new fears about how Australian universities are responding to renewed political and financial pressures due to Covid-19. UNSW, which is heavily dependent on international student revenue, announced last month it was cutting 493 jobs and faced a budget shortfall of $370m in 2021.
The university has said the Twitter post was deleted because it was “being misconstrued as representing the university”.
On Monday, a spokesman for UNSW said there was “nothing remarkable” about the article, which continued to have a presence on the university’s website.
But he said posting it from the corporate account of the university gave the wrong impression that the views had institutional backing.
“The story remains intact consistent with our commitment to freedom of speech.”
Pearson’s article set off a campaign via the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, over the weekend.
Journalist William Yang said he had screen shots from Chinese students’ accounts calling on the Chinese consulate to intervene with the university.
The university now plans to have a clear disclaimer on its Twitter account saying the views of its academics are not the views of the university.