Foreign Affairs

AUT scraps Tiananmen Square event

Chinese government officials have again ordered AUT to shut down a contentious event on campus. This time it was a Tiananmen Square anniversary commemoration. Laura Walters reports.

Auckland University of Technology cancelled a Tiananmen Square anniversary event after Chinese Government officials contacted the university to tell them not to go ahead with the commemorations.

The university said the event was cancelled due to a booking issue, not because of China’s request. This is not the first time representatives from the Chinese Government have tried to block a contentious event, and it’s not the first time a New Zealand university has cited booking issues as the reason for cancellation.

Emails released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the Chinese Consulate General in Auckland contacted AUT to express their opposition to an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, due to be held on June 3.

Vice Consul General Xiao Yewen met with Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack on May 31.

Following the meeting, AUT notified the staff member who had booked the room that the booking had been cancelled. Staff were instructed to put a sign on the door of the building and organise a "low impact security presence". Two days later, event organisers wrote to attendees to let them know the new location at a council-owned facility. 

“Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to re-affirm that not only in the University, where academic freedom is taken very seriously, but also in New Zealand at large, freedom of speech and assembly are held as core democratic principles and fundamental values of our society."

In an email to Xiao, following the meeting, McCormack reiterated the event was not a university event, and said a member of staff had booked a building on campus through the incorrect process, adding that the building in question would also be closed for the Queen’s Birthday public holiday.

McCormack told Newsroom there was no further effort to correct the booking process, or facilitate the event at the university.

“Happily, on this instance your concerns and ours coincided, and the event did not proceed at the university,” he wrote in the email to Xiao.

“Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to re-affirm that not only in the University, where academic freedom is taken very seriously, but also in New Zealand at large, freedom of speech and assembly are held as core democratic principles and fundamental values of our society.

“In all matters within New Zealand’s jurisdiction these freedoms must continue to be amongst our primary considerations as a public institution.”

He went on to say the university had no wish to deliberately offend the government and people of China, adding he hoped to meet soon for “more positive discussions”.

“As a diplomat, I fully understand and respect the basic values such as freedom of speech and assembly; which however have nothing to do with the political agenda of certain forces attempting to change the political system of China."

In an email to McCormack, Xiao thanked the university for “bringing the matter to a right direction”.

“As a diplomat, I fully understand and respect the basic values such as freedom of speech and assembly; which however have nothing to do with the political agenda of certain forces attempting to change the political system of China,” he said in reference to the background to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Xiao went on to say: “The Consulate General wishes to be in close collaboration with you to work together to ensure the smooth growth of cooperation and exchanges between AUT and China under the principle of mutual respect, mutual understanding and mutual trust so as to achieve more beneficial results to both sides.”

McCormack told Newsroom Xiao was clear the Chinese Government wanted him to use his powers to stop the event.

Regardless of these incidents, overall, the university had a good relationship with the consulate, and both sides had openly shared their views on the matter, McCormack said.

This was not the first time the consulate had met with the university to ask it to block an event.

Last year, the consulate approached universities planning to screen a documentary critical of China’s Confucius Institute.

AUT went ahead with its screening despite the issues raised by Chinese Government officials. Meanwhile, the University of Auckland scrapped its screening following issues with the logistics of the booking and the political discussion that was eclipsing the event.

Foreign student dynamic

McCormack said the consulate had never explicitly threatened any kind of repercussions, such as turning off the tap of Chinese students.

“What you could fairly say is that they have referred to our good relationship in the hope that we might respond by doing what they wanted.”

Chinese students make up the biggest portion of the university’s international students at 46 percent. In 2018, 1977 Chinese students attended AUT.

International student fees account for 20 percent of AUT’s annual revenue, making Chinese student fees close to 10 percent of total revenue. Significant changes to policies impacting foreign student numbers is noted in the university's annual report as an "exceptional risk of operating".

China has been known to flex its muscles by turning off the tap of foreign students, in response to diplomatic incidents. In the past these types of incidents have been more significant than a university screening.

“China’s completely within its legal rights, and China will do what China will do. The issue is how New Zealand responds and the strategies we deploy in our response.”

China business expert, and principal of Wigram Capital Advisors, Rodney Jones said the university’s response was “deeply problematic”.

The decision by the university to cancel the event “should be setting off alarm bells”, Jones said.

“We’ve got to the point where relying on universities as an export industry is adversely affecting New Zealand’s interests.

“It’s in New Zealand’s interests to have strong universities, to have a rich academic environment, to be instilling skills that the next generation takes forward.”

This example showed an attempt at suppressing independent thinking and freedom of speech in New Zealand, which university was a party to, he said.

“China’s completely within its legal rights and China will do what China will do. The issue is how New Zealand responds and the strategies we deploy in our response.”

Jones, who was at the event, said the response from the university was “deeply dis-spiriting and deeply corrosive”.

“It feels that New Zealand won’t defend their interests, won’t acknowledge their beliefs, won’t support them in the freedoms they should have acquired by coming to New Zealand.”

Expert questions 'booking issue'

China expert and University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady said AUT’s claim it cancelled the Tiananmen Square event because of a ‘booking issue’ was not credible.

AUT’s reasoning did not match what the event organisers reported at the time. The organisers booked the venue but were told last-minute it was unavailable.

“It is important we remember our history, in this case, all aspects of New Zealand’s relationship with China.”

“AUT management appears to be afraid to offend the Chinese Government, but what about the requirement under New Zealand law that they uphold academic freedom and the critic and conscience role of academia in New Zealand?”

June 4, 1989 was an important date in global history, and AUT and University of Auckland students were part of the protests connected to this event, Brady said.

“It is important we remember our history, in this case, all aspects of New Zealand’s relationship with China.”

Foreign minister Winston Peters said he was aware of the event, and although the Government had not been involved, he agreed with AUT regarding the importance of upholding fundamental values, such as academic freedom and freedom of speech.

“Upholding political and civil rights is of fundamental importance to the New Zealand Government. We make this clear to all governments, including China, in our conduct bilaterally, and of course through our multilateral engagement through the UN in Geneva and New York,” Peters said.

China’s Consulate General in Auckland did not respond to requests for comment.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Become a Supporter

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS