- The Chinese government has issued two warnings in less than a week to its citizens, advising them to think twice before visiting or studying in Australia.
- Citing a spike in racial discrimination, the warnings threaten to affect the combined $24 billion Chinese students and visitors contribute to the local economy.
- It comes as tensions run high between Beijing and Canberra over Australia's support of an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
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The Chinese government has told its students to consider pulling out of Australia as a study destination, as part of a widening rift between the two nations.
On Tuesday, China's Ministry of Education issued a warning to students to reconsider returning to Australia to resume their studies amid what it claimed was racism against Asian students during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Reports that "the country has seen a spike in racial discrimination against Chinese people amid the COVID-19 pandemic" then circulated in state media.
"The ministry stated that Chinese students should assess the risks and be cautious when choosing to study or return to Australia," the Global Times reported on Tuesday.
There does, in fact, appear to have been a rise in incidences of racism in Australia, with more complaints being filed with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in February than at any time during the previous 12 months. However, with many instances of racism likely to go unreported, the data is limited.
"Although our statistics are truthful and accurate, they do not tell the full story of what is happening in the community, nor do they illustrate the sustained spike in racism that has been widely observed," Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan wrote in a post reviewing the reporting.
Education Minister Dan Tehan disputed China's claims, boasting Australia was a successful multicultural country and had controlled the spread of COVID-19.
"We reject China’s assertion that Australia is an unsafe destination for international students," he said in a statement on Wednesday.
"Our priority is for university campuses to be fully operational with COVID-19 safe protocols in place so our domestic students and the international students, including Chinese students, already in Australia can return to on-campus learning."
Despite Tehan's assurances, however, the warning will read as a threat to the Australian university sector which has long been reliant on Chinese students, who make up nearly four in 10 of all international enrolments. They contributed $12 billion to the sector last year, while some universities, such as the University of Sydney, receive some $500 million a year, according to some estimates.
Such dependence was clearly demonstrated earlier this year when COVID-19 travel restrictions saw Australian universities offer thousands of dollars to Chinese students to circumvent their government's travel ban.
Not that Australia's trade with China is limited to its education sector, extending significantly into sectors like tourism and exports as well.
It follows a similar warning issued by the country's Ministry of Tourism and Culture a few days earlier, citing a "spike in racial abuse towards Chinese and other Asians", and marks increasing tensions between Beijing and Canberra.
"Some Australian politicians and media called the coronavirus a 'Chinese virus' and maliciously tampered with the Chinese national flag and national emblem," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told an Australian journalist on Monday, defending the tourism warning.
"Many overseas Chinese in Australia have been verbally insulted or even attacked, the property of some Chinese and other Asian families was destroyed and they suffered unfair treatment in their daily work."
The 1.4 million Chinese who visit Australian shores each year contribute another $12 billion to the economy, according to official statistics.
While there may be indications that racism rose during the early half of 2020, it only makes up part of the picture. The Chinese government has increasingly been threatening economic consequences after Australia signalled it would support calls for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. It's widely understood the CCP moved to raise 80% tariffs on Australian barley exports in response.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemed to respond to such threats in his National Press Club address just a few weeks ago.
"While a trading nation, we will never trade away our values or our future for short-term gain. With trade alliances and other partners, we will work to establish and maintain the balance needed for peace and stability in our region upon which everyone’s prosperity depends," he said.