Prominent Chinese scholar of Australian studies appeals for transparent, non-political academic exchanges, expects normalized bilateral ties after Australian PM's fruitful visit

Editor's Note:

Academic and cultural exchanges have long been an important window of communication, allowing for the exploration of common ground, dispelling misconceptions and building trust, identifying shared challenges, and developing innovative solutions between China and Australia. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's recent visit to China brought fresh expectations that this window could be reopened after diplomatic relations soured between the two trading partners at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Global Times reporters Hu Yuwei and Fan Wei interviewed two outstanding scholars from China and Australia respectively to hear their comments on Albanese's visit and what they anticipate for the future of people-to-people exchanges.

A veteran China hand in Australia, Jocelyn Chey, Australia's first cultural counselor to China, felt encouraged by Albanese's visit to China and said that Australian academics are hopeful that they will be able to engage more with their Chinese counterparts and contribute more to the understanding of China, while a prominent Chinese academic Chen Hong recalled his visa being cancelled on unfounded security grounds in 2020 and underlined his appeal for a more transparent, open, and non-political way of dealing with normal people-to-people and academic exchanges between the two countries.
Looking back on the incident of his visa cancelation on the so-called "national security" grounds in 2020, Chen Hong, a leading Chinese scholar in Australian studies, still feels very shocked at the ludicrous allegation, but said the incident had not at all dampened his commitment to China-Australia relations research and dedication to academic exchanges between the two countries.

With the successful conclusion of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's visit to China, Chen hopes that such absurdities, which affect innocent scholars from both China and Australia, will be a thing of the past with the warming of China-Australia relations.

"What the visa farce actually harms is the cultural and educational exchanges between China and Australia, rather than my personal interests as I have no assets or property in Australia. I have been engaged in Australian studies for over 30 years, and I have always been committed to promoting bilateral educational exchanges. Australian studies have a history of over 40 years in China, and through our research, teaching and translation as scholars and academics, we are actually promoting mutual understanding and mutual trust between the two sides, thereby bringing clear benefits through cooperation," Chen, a professor of Australian Studies at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, told the Global Times in a recent interview.

"If normal academic and cultural exchanges are obstructed on baseless pretexts or so-called political or ideological factors, it actually breaks an important channel that could promote mutual understanding and trust. This is not conducive to the long-term development between the two countries," he said.

Chen called Albanese's recent visit to China a "remarkable breakthrough" since 2016. He highlighted a tremendous change and a directional shift in the bilateral relationship seen after the bilateral summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022.

The Shanghai-based professor looks forward to the hostile diplomatic stance taken by the former Coalition government toward Beijing to be ditched as he is optimistic about the outcomes of the Albanese government's successful visit to China.

In 2020, Chen Hong, together with another leading Australian studies scholar Li Jianjun, were among the first Chinese scholars and journalists to be targeted by Australian authorities over alleged foreign interference and had their visas cancelled following advice from the Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO).

Chen, who has been the director of the Australian Studies Center at the East China Normal University in Shanghai since 2001 and is a frequent visitor to Australia, told the Global Times that he resolutely rejected ASIO's groundless accusation and wrote back to the Department of Home Affairs in August 2020 for further clarification.

"I told them that I believe a gross mistake had been made regarding my relationship with Australia," he said. "I said I am always available for contact if there are any questions they may need to further clarify. But unfortunately, there has been no response so far. This year I was asked by my university to take part in a delegation to visit our partner institutions in Australia. I lodged an application for a business visitor's visa, but so far it has just gone like a stone dropped into the sea."

"Some anti-China elements in Australia sometimes slander China's judicial system of being 'opaque'. But look who is really being opaque?" he questioned.

"We sincerely hope that the Australian side does not set obstacles to normal academic exchanges based on a narrow ideology. Such obstruction is not only a loss for academia but also hinders mutual understanding between the two peoples. We hope the relevant authorities in Australia will handle the visa-related matter more proactively and constructively," Chen maintained.

The professor noted that there are currently 38 Australian research centers in the Chinese mainland and three on the island of Taiwan, totaling 41 institutions that have been promoting understanding between China and Australia through teaching, translation, research, conferencing and think tank reports.

In recent years, China-Australia relations, drawn to a low ebb, have indeed caused a "chilling effect" in academic exchanges between the two sides. The latest incident is that of a Chinese university scholar whose equipment was seized while he was questioned by Australia's security agency and police in Western Australia, in August.

"In fact, Australia is one of the most popular overseas education destinations for Chinese students. There is a strong foundation for educational cooperation between China and Australia to turn it into an advantage. It is mutually beneficial as Chinese students will bring back a positive impression of Australia after coming back to China, instead of unpleasant experiences, such as being labeled as spies, a talking point hyped up in previous years," Chen warned. "It is costly to repair relations once they are damaged, and sometimes it may even be irreparable."

Chen believes that the meeting between the leaders of the two countries in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022 has brought about a major turning point in bilateral relations, indicating a top-down push to improve the bilateral relations, setting the direction on a series of issues including trade and economy.

"This visit by Albanese to China also takes place against the backdrop of the US advocating for decoupling between its Western allies and China. However, by visiting China, in particular attending the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, Albanese has unequivocally indicated his refusal to join this camp," said Chen.

The Australia-US alliance has served as the cornerstone for Australia's foreign policy, and that's not likely to change in the foreseeable future. However, the US is reluctant to see Australia's attempts to improve its relations with China, which can be well reflected in the comments made by Washington, that Australia should trust the US more than China.

Evidently, Albanese's fruitful visit to China demonstrates Australia's independence as a sovereign country, as well as its determination to improve relations with China despite various pressures and interference from anti-China forces at home and abroad, the expert noted. "China never expects the dissolution of the US-Australia alliance, but if US interference touches upon China's core interests, such as sovereignty and territorial integrity, China will resolutely respond to such provocation."

The researcher believes that China and Australia should consider each other as partners, not rivals, let alone adversaries. "China and Australia have a comprehensive strategic partnership, so both countries need to work conjointly with each other with mutual trust in a constructive spirit."

"Policymakers in Canberra need to exercise their political wisdom to approach the relationship with a more positive and practical attitude, and no longer use political labels to create obstacles to the relationship as the previous Morrison cohort did. I am basically an optimist and I am confident that the prospects for cooperation between the two countries will be broader, with greater benefits," he concluded.

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