Coronavirus: China warns students over 'risks' of studying in Australia

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A student walks past buildings at the University of Sydney in Sydney, AustraliaImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Students from China make a large contribution to Australia's economy

China has warned students to consider the risks of studying in Australia during the pandemic, aggravating a political row between the nations.

Its education ministry has issued the advisory to students before Australian universities reopen in July.

The ministry cited the threat of Covid-19 and discrimination against Asians as possible risks.

Australia's government and universities have rejected the idea the country is unsafe.

On Tuesday, Beijing said in a statement students should be "cautious" when choosing to go or return to Australia.

"The spread of the new global Covid-19 outbreak has not been effectively controlled, and there are risks in international travel and open campuses," the ministry said. "During the epidemic, there were multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia."

In response, Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan said the country was a "successful, multicultural society" which provides a "world-class education".

He also made reference to Australia's success in flattening its virus curve which meant that it was "one of the safest countries in the world for international students to be based in right now".

What are the broader tensions?

The advisory marks the latest escalation in tensions between China and Australia during the coronavirus pandemic.

Relations worsened after Australia echoed the US in calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, first detected in China late last year.

China has dismissed that call as politically motivated. It has since imposed a tariff and blocked shipments of some Australian imports, but has denied this is economic retaliation.

Last week, it also warned citizens against travelling to the country, saying there had been a "significant increase" in racist attacks on Asian people in Australia.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
China has warned about a surge in racist attacks in Australia

Education and tourism are Australia's third and fourth biggest exports overall, and significant contributors to the economy.

Students from China represented 28% of the more than 750,000 international students in Australia last year, government numbers show.

Australia's universities have already faced financial difficulties during the pandemic, as border closures have deterred international students. Several institutions have said they are facing financial crisis.

Australian universities could lose A$12bn ($8.3bn; £6.5bn) over the next two years if Chinese students decide against studying in the country, Prof Salvatore Babones at Sydney University has estimated.

Education 'the pawn in a political game'

Australia's Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said China's assertions about the dangers to tourists had "no basis in fact".

However, government bodies, community groups and media outlets have all catalogued hundreds of racist attacks and abuse on Asian people in Australia since the pandemic began.

In one of several high-profile incidents caught on film, a woman was accused of a racist attack on two students from the University of Melbourne in April.

Media caption,
Karen Ji spent 16 days in Bangkok to get around Australia's Covid-19 ban on arrivals from mainland China

On Wednesday, a coalition of Australia's leading universities called China's advisory "unjustified". The Group of Eight said they had asked the Chinese embassy in Australia for examples of racism, which were not provided.

"It is concerning that yet again, international education, and particularly with China, is yet again the pawn in a political game that is not of our making," said chief executive Vicki Thomson.

However, Australia's universities have long been accused by researchers of not providing better support to international students.

Surveys of Chinese students in Australia have found many struggle to develop stronger social bonds with their Australian-born peers due to existing prejudices.