UTS’ pro-China think tank continues despite Professor Chongyi Feng’s detainment

Aaron Taylor


While on a research trip consulting Chinese human rights lawyers, UTS’ associate professor of China Studies, Dr. Chongyi Feng, has been blocked from leaving China.

Professor Feng’s pro-democratic commentary has led to reported interrogations in an attempt to stifle academic opposition to the regime.

In question are his links with Chinese liberal intellectuals. But the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) intervention in academic research continues beyond that of domestic policy and directly involves UTS.

The Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), founded by UTS in 2014, has been repeatedly criticised for its funding sources and foreign influence on Australia’s higher education system.

The ACRI releases research, hosts events, and promotes articles “based on a positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations” according to their website. Director of ACRI, Bob Carr, maintained Chinese human rights violations should be covered by other organisations.

“We’re not Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International,” Mr. Carr told The Australian in 2016.

Mr. Carr is currently leading a delegation for ACRI in Beijing this week and has advised that private dealings be taken rather than other options to manage the situation. Vertigo contacted ACRI but Mr. Carr was unavailable for comment.

Now that Professor Feng has been placed on the no-fly list, it brings attention to UTS’ senior leadership regarding the role of ACRI while maintaining academic integrity within the university itself.

UTS’ media release from last Monday expressed concern for Professor Feng but failed to condemn the actions of the PRC in their treatment of their employee.

President of the Student Association, Beatrice Tan, believes that UTS not condemning the actions of the Chinese government shows a conflict of interest with the source of the university’s donations.

“I think it makes UTS look really bad for them to be accepting funding from what is essentially a pro-China think tank instead of supporting one of its academics. Especially someone who has headed a department for eleven years,” said Ms. Tan.

The questionable sources of funding include Chinese billionaires, Huang Xiangmo and Dr. Chau Chak Wing. It was Huang’s initial donation of $1.8 million that led to the establishment of the ACRI and since then, the PRC-owned Bank of China and China Construction Bank have become donors.

Huang Xiangmo’s payment of Senator Dastyari’s $40,000 legal bill led to a nationwide debate around the role of foreign influence over Australia’s politicians last year. In response to the scandal, Huang stepped down as Chairman of the ACRI and wrote in the Global Times:

“Chinese donors still need to learn from others about how to participate in politics, how to realise their political appeals by donations, and how to deploy the media to promote their political ideas.”

Dr. Chau Chak Wing, a politically influential Chinese businessman, has reportedly donated $25 million to UTS. His donations most notably funded the development of Building 8, which was designed by Frank Gehry, and named in Dr. Chau’s honour.

Among Dr. Chau’s business ventures, he owns Australia’s third-largest Chinese-language newspaper, ‘New Express Daily’. The majority of Chinese-language media in Australia is considered to be an extension of party propaganda and according to Chau in a rare interview with The Age in 2009:

“The [Chinese] government has found [New Express Daily] very commendable, because we never have had any negative reporting.”

The ACRI released a research report on Chinese-language media in Australia downplaying the impact of party propaganda on Chinese Australians, claiming:

“The circulation of Chinese newspapers in Australia is relatively small, and Chinese-speaking migrants can easily access or be exposed to propaganda content from PRC media directly, so their exposure to it in diasporic Chinese-language media may be a marginal factor in the formation of their views.”

The report briefly mentions Dr. Chau’s ‘New Express Daily’, saying: “the paper has been described by Australian journalists as ‘patriotic’ towards China… and ‘Beijing-friendly’.”

Professor Feng has been an active critic of Chinese-language media in Australia. In 2006, he started the publication, ‘Sydney Times’, to provide criticisms lacking in other Chinese-language publications like ‘New Express Daily’.

Professor Feng told the Sydney Morning Herald that while operating ‘Sydney Times’, the Chinese consulate threatened to interfere with his academic work by restricting access to Chinese universities and placing him on a travel ban to the mainland. ‘Sydney Times’ was then forced to dissolve because it was unable to obtain advertising revenue around its content.

Fundamental to his academic research is the practice of freedom of speech, especially considering the subject of PRC’s human rights violations. As for now, Professor Feng is left in limbo, not knowing when he will be allowed back into Australia.