Professors have been singled out by name and covertly videotaped. Some have been disciplined by their universities. One professor was forced to apologize after the internet erupted with criticism over a map that he had used in a class 18 months earlier.
In many cases, professors say they feel the pressure more subtly.
Kevin Carrico, an American lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, said he faced icy silence in a recent class when he mentioned the lack of individual rights during the Qin dynasty, 2,200 years ago.
The students, who mostly came from mainland China, at first refused to say a word. Then two spoke up to insist that human rights were irrelevant to the discussion.
“It made me feel like I was teaching an awkward anatomy class, or something like that,” said Dr. Carrico, who previously taught at Stanford. “But really we were just talking about politics.”
The challenge, educators and other experts say, is balancing professors’ academic freedoms with the need to avoid offending the Chinese students, while also giving them the right to voice their views.
Universities have struggled to figure out which students simply lack experience with Western ideas of critical debate; which are correct in demanding more sensitivity; and which are being manipulated by the Chinese government or Communist Party, or acting out of fear of Chinese censorship that is being exported as the nation exerts its soft power overseas.
Much of the students’ prickly nationalism gets vented on social media, often anonymously, and then snowballs as it is picked up by news sites and internet users in China. As in the case of Mr. Gao, much of this appears to at least start as the authentic outrage of real Chinese students, sometimes based on genuine grievances.
But in some cases, it appears to get support from Chinese diplomats and the state-run news media, who amplify the students’ voices and reach out to student leaders. Mr. Gao, for instance, said he now is invited regularly to events at the Chinese Consulate, which asks him for reports on what is happening to Chinese students on campus. (An official at the consulate declined to comment.)
Such attention from the authorities can also pressure Chinese students to self-censor for fear that they are being watched, even while abroad.
According to Human Rights Watch, which is completing a two-year investigation into China’s impact on the world’s universities, Chinese government pressures are undermining academic freedom not only in Australia but also the United States and Europe.
“I first went to China to study myself in the fall of 1989,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “Twenty-five years later, it’s much easier for mainland students to go to Australia or the U.S. and study, and yet they are in some ways and in some cases as restricted or as surveilled as they would be if they had stayed at home. That, to me, is not the right direction for us to be going.”
The students’ assertiveness has posed a challenge not only to Australia’s universities but also to its broader society, which prides itself on being a tolerant, multiethnic melting pot. The Australian news media has given the episodes intensive, often negative coverage, portraying the students as brainwashed or under the thumb of government agents. A backlash has appeared in the form of racist anti-Chinese scrawlings on campuses.
Behind the attention is the deep anxiety that many Australians feel toward an emerging Asian superpower that is both their country’s biggest security challenge and its largest trading partner. The episodes have added to existing concerns about Chinese influence in Australia.
“We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities,” Duncan Lewis, the head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, warned lawmakers last month. “It can go to the behavior of foreign students, it can go to the behavior of foreign consular staff.”
Concerns about the role of the roughly 164,000 Chinese students in Australia have become particularly acute as revenue from foreign students has become a major driver of its economy. Education is the country’s third-largest export (after iron ore and coal), and many Australian universities now rely on full-fee-paying international students, of whom nearly 30 percent are from China, to subsidize domestic students and academic research.
As a result, educators and other experts say, universities and faculty members have become especially vulnerable to pressure from Chinese students.
In one case in late August, at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, a group of Chinese students in an international marketing class took issue with their lecturer, Nimay Kalyani, when he referred to Taiwan as an independent country. China considers the self-governing island part of its territory.
The students covertly videotaped an argument with him and mobilized on social media to shame him and the university.
In the video, made public by the Chinese-language media, one student can be heard saying: “Chinese students are one-third of this classroom. You make us feel uncomfortable.”
The university eventually spoke up on Professor Kalyani’s behalf, describing his statement as accurate in the context of the discussion.
But in other instances, universities have been more reluctant to defend the academics involved.
Khimji Vaghjiani, a computer science lecturer at the University of Sydney, was found to have used a map during a class he taught 18 months earlier, showing India in control of disputed areas around its border with China.
Chinese students reported the map to Chinese-language news media, describing it as inaccurate. Dr. Vaghjiani later apologized, explaining that the map was outdated.
The professors involved in these episodes all declined, or did not respond to, requests for comment. The University of Sydney said in a statement that no professors had been forced to apologize for statements relating to China.
But some faculty members said Australian universities were simply struggling with how to handle a new generation of Chinese students who feel more nationalistic and more empowered.
Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, added that many students came up through a Chinese education system that teaches modern history as “the century of humiliation,” in which foreigners have kept China down since the Opium Wars of the 19th century.
“To many of them, it is not a question of a fair academic debate about an interesting topic,” Dr. Varrall said. “It is as if someone is criticizing their family.”
Some Chinese students argue that they are not harming critical debates, but rather, adding perspective.
“The confrontations between Chinese students and academics that have appeared recently are opportunities for people from different cultures to understand how Chinese people think,” said Wang Junling, 38, a Chinese writer who graduated in June from James Cook University in Queensland.
That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Gao, the Monash student, who said everything taught at Australian universities should be “correct and official.”
“I would like to say when we’re abroad, we’re representing the image of China,” Mr. Gao wrote in one article on the quiz incident. “It is everybody’s undeniable responsibility to defend our country’s interests.”
Many academics say that is the kind of rigidity that limits freedom of discussion and that sets professors on edge.
“I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning and see a link on WeChat” — a Chinese social media platform — “saying that I said something in a lecture a year ago that hurt people’s feelings,” said Dr. Carrico of the University of Sydney. “But that’s the kind of the reality we’re in at the moment.”