Falun Gong ban hits uni earnings

Sydney, Australia - AUSTRALIA'S $900 million education export trade with China is under attack from a Chinese Government campaign to block internet access within the country to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.

Spooked universities are understood to be working secretly on ways to get around the so-called Great Firewall of China after the University of Technology, Sydney website was blocked twice within China over a period of more than three months until late August.

The university suffered "very major damage" as a result of the blocks, which were traced to a state-owned telecommunications company in Beijing, pro-vice chancellor (international) David Goodman said.

From May until two weeks ago, enrolment inquiries from the university's biggest overseas market collapsed and the work of staff and students within China was severely disrupted, Professor Goodman said.

The site was unblocked a second time after the Australian embassy in Beijing protested, and UTS expunged all references to Falun Gong from its website.

The university was caught in a "political row" between the Chinese Government and Falun Gong, Professor Goodman said. He said "lots" of other universities within Australia and overseas had similar experiences.

The sector has gone to ground for fear of "inflaming the situation", as one source explained.

Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee chief executive John Mullarvey said the incident would be "of concern" but the AVCC needed to investigate further before deciding whether to take it up with the Chinese or Australian governments. He had not heard of similar incidents involving Australian universities.

A spokesman for federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson said it had been properly a matter for the diplomatic service. "We understand that the university has already communicated with them on that issue," he said.

Professor Goodman said UTS first learned of the website blockage in May and complained to officials at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, who denied any knowledge of it. Ben Hurley of the university's Falun Dafa Meditation Club said he heard that the Chinese Government had pressured the university over an art exhibition on campus depicting members' experiences in Chinese detention.

On June 20, the university council held a rowdy meeting at which the controversial introduction of more full-fee paying places was announced. University spokesman James Willoughby said UTS vice-chancellor Ross Milbourne mentioned the website blockage as an example of risks to the university's income that "had to be managed".

But the Vice-Chancellor's further comments at that meeting are in dispute. Professor Milbourne through a spokesman denied saying anything about having to wear losses in income from China as a result of taking a principled stand on the website issue, as the UTS Student's Association President Michelle Sparks, who was at the meeting, claims he did.

Ms Spark's version appeared in the Falun Gong publication Epoch Times and on the Falun Gong website clearwisdom.net around July 6. The university believes that as a result of those articles, its website, having become accessible in China again only the week before, was blocked for a second time.

After the second blockage the Australian Embassy pleaded the university's case in Beijing. The website was unblocked for the second time about two weeks ago.

A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Education denied all knowledge of the UTS website blockage and said it was not within the Ministry's ambit. The Ministry for Public Security which administers Internet monitoring and censorship did not respond to The Australian's questions.