A "ridiculous, racist" gag from Victoria University's student newspaper has upset the Chinese Embassy and has international students threatening to study elsewhere.

The joke, printed in the April 24 issue of Salient, ranked the Chinese fourth in a list of "Top five species we should be wary of".

"It was a ridiculous jab that was honestly so stupid I didn't even think twice about it," said Salient editor James Robinson, who has since shrugged off several death threats.

"We put 'the Chinese' between 'penguins' and 'very poisonous snakes' on the list, and people somehow took it seriously."

But reaction from the Chinese Embassy and Chinese and international student communities has propelled the Wellington university into damage control.

Chinese Embassy counsellor Liu Quan called the gag blatantly racist.

"If you say this, you create feelings against the Chinese."

The embassy and Victoria's vice-chancellor, Pat Walsh, both asked Salient to apologise and Professor Walsh yesterday met Chinese education officer Liu Jiang to reassure him as international students threatened to take significant revenue away from the university.

Students association president Nick Kelly posted an apology on a local website, chinese.net.nz, labelling the article "xenophobic and inappropriate ... in poor taste".

A letter to be printed in Monday's Salient reads: "Some Chinese students consider transferring to other [universities] or even leaving the country because they feel they have been discriminated [against] by their fellow Kiwi students."

The letter is signed by the Victoria students association's international officer and treasurer and the president of the Chinese students and scholars association.

In another letter, the university's director of public affairs, Jude Urlich, says it was a "thoughtless, offensive and indeed racist statement".

Mr Robinson has apologised for the joke several times, including in a letter to the Chinese Embassy and in Salient's editorial this week, but he defends his right to publish.

"It's not hate speech or inciting violence against the Chinese race. It would be a dangerous precedent to come out and say, 'Sorry, we were totally out of our minds to print such a thing'."

People who were offended had misinterpreted it, he said.

"It's such a ridiculous, racist comment that it's meaningless or, from another angle, it takes a jab at how powerful the Chinese are."

He speculated on whether the fanning of the issue, three weeks after the joke was published, had anything to do with a rise in international students' fees.

"The university can now come down on the side of international students at a time when their fees are on the up."