All Chinese students in the ACT are automatically “coordinating” members of the CSSA. (Facebook: CSSA ACT )
Australia’s peak Chinese student body reports to and is partly funded by the Chinese embassy, new documents reveal.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) promotes itself as an autonomous group under the guidance of the Chinese embassy and has branches at universities across Australia.
- Founding documents show the mission of the CSSA in Canberra is to “assist the embassy” to help and serve Chinese students
- The executive board must “communicate with the embassy … regularly”.
- All Chinese students and scholars in the ACT are automatically “coordinating” members of the CSSA
But according to new documents obtained as part of a joint Four Corners-Background Briefing investigation, the mission of the CSSA in Canberra is to “assist the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China” while helping students and promoting exchanges.
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The CSSA ACT’s incorporation documents filed in 2012, show the association’s role is to “facilitate the connection between the embassy and the Chinese students and scholars” and its executive board must “communicate with the embassy … regularly”.
The association has been accused of peddling Chinese propaganda and helping the Chinese Government to keep an eye on its overseas students.
In Canberra the association has also faced allegations of campus censorship and spying on students at the Australian National University (ANU).
The CSSA ACT, which organises events and provides support for Chinese students in Canberra, claims to have 5,500 current student members from a Chinese student population of 8,600.
The documents reveal all Chinese students and scholars in the ACT are automatically “coordinating” members.
All members are expected to “support and actively [be] involved” in the association’s events and “follow the decisions of the executive committee”.
The body is run, in part, by “government-supported students” and it receives funding from the embassy.
One of the aims of the association is to “love the motherland” and at least one committee member, at the time of incorporation, listed his address as the Chinese embassy.
Alex Joske, an analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an ANU graduate, said universities have been too welcoming of China-aligned bodies like the CSSA.
“I think universities have a really serious issue on their hands,” he said.
“They’ve let groups like the CSSA grow and expand on campuses, build their influence, build their resourcing, and essentially that gives the Chinese Government a channel straight into the lives of Chinese students even when they’re outside China’s borders.”
The CSSA did not respond to questions.
Chinese academic Chen Hong was recently brought to Australia as part of a PR campaign, and was provided to Four Corners by the Chinese embassy after a request to interview the ambassador was declined.
Professor Chen, a director of the Australian Studies Centre at the East China Normal University, said Chinese students in Australia were feeling increasingly unwelcome amid public debate about foreign interference at universities.
“Numerous Chinese students are choosing Australia as a destination for their further studies,” he said.
“If they really feel that Australia is unfriendly and unwelcoming, that will actually be putting them off. So that will be influencing the flow of students to Australia.”
According to the CSSA ACT website, it has members in the CSIRO, Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), University of Canberra and ANU.
ADFA said it had never had a Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the academy.
The organisation lists its headquarters at the ANU, but the university said it had no affiliation or formal presence on campus.
Until March, it was listed as a club affiliated with the student union.
ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said he was not aware of the incorporation document or the mandate that all Chinese students in ACT automatically became members of the CSSA.
“It is worthwhile to review and make sure it is consistent with what the ANU holds as its values,” he said.
But Professor Schmidt said the Chinese Government was “manifestly not running an interference campaign” at the ANU campus.
“They clearly have interest in having conversations with their students here, and that is the same that most embassies do,” he said.
“There are a large number of students here, but within our campus they have the ability to express themselves, be part of our campus, be part of the freedom that is inherent in Australian society.”
Last month, the group reportedly collected passport numbers of attendees at the Chinese Government’s 70th-anniversary celebrations in Canberra.
In 2017, it received funding from the Chinese embassy for flags, transportation and legal costs during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, as revealed by Four Corners.
The CSSA’s track record in other jurisdictions has also been controversial.
The Adelaide University branch was reportedly deregistered for failing to follow democratic processes on campus and the Tasmanian branch allegedly complained about pro-Hong Kong material on campus.
In 2011, Cambridge University appeared to disaffiliate its CSSA branch, and New York’s Columbia University temporarily barred its local branch in 2015.
Last month, the CSSA’s Canadian members were accused of intimidating students who spoke out against the Chinese Government.
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