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China has flagged a possible boycott of Australian universities as bilateral tensions rise over Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, said Australia risked inflaming resentment among Chinese parents by “teaming up with … forces in Washington to launch a kind of political campaign against China.”

“People would think, why should we go to such a country that is not friendly to China?” Cheng told the Australian Financial Review. “The parents of the students would … think whether this place which they’ve found is even hostile is the best place to send their kids.”

The remarks suggest that geopolitical tensions, long considered the factor most likely to undermine Chinese enrollments in Australia, could stifle the resurgence of student flows after travel bans are lifted.

Beijing has already barred Chinese mainlanders from starting tertiary courses in Taiwan, citing the “current relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait” as well as coronavirus-related restrictions, according to The South China Morning Post. The move is considered a tit-for-tat response to Taipei’s temporary ban on Chinese students returning to the island to limit the pandemic’s spread.

China has previously linked political disputes with student flows. In late 2017, China’s embassy in Canberra warned the country’s students about safety risks in Australia, citing an increase in assaults and “insulting incidents.”

While the warning followed two violent attacks in Canberra, it emerged amid heightened tensions over Australia’s proposed counterespionage laws and China’s reported meddling in Australian politics.

Some experts say veiled threats about student flows are part of the saber rattling during political disputes, and that more concrete interventions -- such as denying students permission to leave China -- are unlikely. However, potentially a bigger danger is that Chinese parents sense the political mood and unilaterally avoid countries considered out of favor with Beijing.

The number of new students applying to Australian universities from the Chinese mainland has changed little in the past four years, after almost tripling over the previous five years, when bilateral relations were warmer.

The coronavirus-induced plunge in international enrollments, particularly from China, is the main factor in the financial upheaval confronting Australian universities. Around a dozen institutions so far have disclosed public estimates of their anticipated losses this year, with forecasts averaging about 250 million Australian dollars ($163 million).

Despite this, Australia’s government has twice changed the rules underpinning its JobKeeper employment subsidy scheme to ensure universities are excluded. Asked why on ABC’s Q&A program, Education Minister Dan Tehan said, “Universities should face the same requirements as large businesses.”

University of Sydney deputy vice chancellor Lisa Jackson Pulver said universities were “very different” from big business. “We don’t have shareholders,” she told the program. “The benefit of our work is research, educated people and a strong nation.

“To have us in the type of strife we’re in at the moment will have consequences for how we consider ourselves to be a clever country.”

National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes said 21,000 academics were “looking at losing work.” New South Wales Education Department secretary Mark Scott said he was “astounded” that universities did not attract as much political support as the mining or tourism sectors.

“This is a vital industry, important to the future of the nation, facing very significant threat now,” he told the program.

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