Chinese international students take on major parties at universities
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Chinese international students take on major parties at universities

Organised factions of Chinese international students are dominating elections at Australia's major universities, beating the established political parties at the same time as national authorities warn about foreign influence.

The phenomenon is most pronounced at Sydney University, the country's oldest, where two of this year's four candidates for president of the Students' Representative Council are mainly backed by international students.

Last year nearly one in four of all students enrolled at Sydney University were Chinese.

Last year nearly one in four of all students enrolled at Sydney University were Chinese.Credit:Fairfax Media

Earlier this year, Chinese international students scooped elections for the university's postgraduate body, SUPRA, leading to its first executive consisting entirely of international students, according to student newspaper Honi Soit.

They have also dominated elections for the board of the University of Sydney Union, a separate student organisation, polling in first place for three years in a row.

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And at the University of Melbourne, a recent postgraduate election ended up before a tribunal after international students sought to have the results nullified, according to student paper Farrago.

The rise of Chinese international students as a potent political force has weakened the established factions such as young Labor, which ran the Sydney University SRC for 14 straight years until 2015. The change has been noticed – and welcomed – at the highest levels of university administration.

"I would point out that engaging in student elections isn’t exactly covert, nor is it unwelcome at the University of Sydney," vice-chancellor Michael Spence told Fairfax Media. "[We] welcome any attempt to ensure that representative bodies are as diverse as our student population."

Sydney University's SRC has been a political training ground for generations. Past presidents include former prime minister Tony Abbott, US ambassador and former Liberal treasurer Joe Hockey, NSW Labor assistant general secretary Rose Jackson and former High Court justice Michael Kirby.

Jacky He, originally from China, is one of four candidates vying to run the Sydney University SRC.

Jacky He, originally from China, is one of four candidates vying to run the Sydney University SRC.Credit:Janie Barrett

This year Jacky He, a second-year engineering student who moved to Australia as a child and is now a permanent resident, is contesting the SRC presidency with backing from a growing faction called Panda, which chiefly represents Chinese international students. The group won a quarter of the vote last year, securing more seats on council than any other faction.

Mr He said he had been asked by several people, including student newspaper editors, whether he had links to the Chinese Communist Party – questions he found unfair.

"I feel like it’s quite unjust for people to say 'Hey look, because there’s a lot of Chinese students, they must be Chinese spies'," he told Fairfax Media. "We want to adjust our stance – to tell everyone that we are not the kind of people you say we are."

Engaging in student elections isn’t exactly covert, nor is it unwelcome.

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence

Weihong Liang, the president of SUPRA, said his job was to improve campus life, not play politics.

"Most international students, including me, do not have the interest to be involved in any politics inside or outside the university," he told Fairfax Media.

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But there are growing links between Chinese students and the established factions. For example, Mr He and his Panda Warriors, as they are known, have close ties with students in the Liberal Party.

According to government figures, a record 160,000 Chinese international students were in Australia in February this year – 31 per cent of the total. It has sparked debate about whether some sandstone universities such as Sydney and Melbourne are overly reliant on these lucrative students for income.

There have also been warnings from Canberra about the threat of foreign interference. The head of spy agency ASIO, Duncan Lewis, has warned universities to be "very conscious" of the "insidious threat" of foreign meddling. John Garnaut, a former Asia-Pacific adviser to Malcolm Turnbull, has said Beijing instructs students to have "red hot patriotic sentiment when they are in Australia".

Earlier this year, Dr Spence angered Mr Turnbull when he condemned the government for what he called "Sinophobic blatherings" that threatened the country's third largest export market.

"Calling them spies or whatever without any evidence is just not very welcoming ... I just think we need to give them a fair go," Dr Spence reportedly said.

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House