A former senior intelligence analyst for the Australian government is calling for an urgent review of an arrangement whereby a Chinese government-affiliated entity is embedded inside a state government department.
The New South Wales Department of Education is the first government department in the world to host a Confucius Institute, part of an international network established by Beijing in 2004 to promote Chinese language and culture and, in the words of a former senior Chinese official, “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.
Amid concern about Beijing’s increasing influence in Australian institutions and an escalating international backlash against Confucius institutes, this arrangement, signed in 2011, is coming under renewed scrutiny.
“I think it is unacceptable,” says Ross Babbage, the former head of strategic analysis at the Office of National Assessments, the government’s intelligence adviser. “This sort of activity has to be put in the picture of the broader programs – propaganda, influence, cyber, even espionage – programs that the Chinese government has been sponsoring into Australia.
“These Confucius Institute initiatives cannot be seen as somehow separate, or an abstraction from them. Accepting Chinese government-funded personnel within an Australian state government department is a very serious issue that deserves urgent review.”
Under a 2011 agreement, the NSW Department of Education Confucius Institute manages Confucius classrooms teaching Chinese in 13 NSW primary and secondary public schools. Two of the four positions in the NSW institute are funded by the department, while the others are funded by Chinese partners, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as the Hanban, in partnership with Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education.
Under the Confucius Institute constitution, all institutes are obliged to report their annual projects and accounts back to their Beijing headquarters “for examination and approval”, effectively giving a Chinese government body potential veto power over work done within an Australian government department.
The NSW Department of Education said: “The Confucius Institute at the NSW Department of Education is managed by the department and complies with all departmental policies.
“The intent of the agreement is to strengthen educational cooperation between China and Australia, support and promote the development of Chinese language education, and increase mutual understanding and friendship among people in China and Australia.”
Dr Marshall Sahlins, a renowned sociologist at the University of Chicago who wrote a book about the influence of Confucius institutes on academic life, criticised the arrangement as “dangerous for the obvious reason that it implants Chinese interests and personnel, not simply in NSW universities but in the NSW government department in charge of education”.
The worldwide Confucius Institute headquarters (the “Hanban”), which is affiliated with China’s ministry of education, provided $150,000 in establishment funds for the NSW Department of Education Institute, and gives $10,000 per year for each Confucius classroom, as well as a native Chinese teaching assistant and teaching materials.
One Chinese language teacher, Jinping Blunden, at Homebush Boys high school, said Confucius Institute funding has increased the popularity of Chinese among students at the school. It has helped pay for excursions to the Blue Mountains, Sydney’s Chinatown and the Chinese Garden of Friendship, deepening students’ understanding of Chinese culture. When asked about the possibility of political content being included in class, she said all NSW Chinese classes must follow the state-mandated syllabus, using local textbooks, with the institute’s teaching assistants only playing a supplementary role in the classroom.
The Chinese Language Teachers Association of NSW says the Confucius classrooms have benefited Chinese language and culture studies, and there is no evidence of political content.
Jamie Parker, a NSW MP who raised concerns about the Confucius classrooms in the parliament in 2011, said: “I’m concerned this is acting as an arm of propaganda from the Chinese perspective and trying to extend that into our education system here in Australia. One of the problems is that schools are always so desperate for funding that people that are supposed to be providing funds are often welcomed with open arms without the kind of analysis and critical eye that’s required.”
Another expert, Dr Falk Hartig at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, has studied Confucius institutes in Australia, and raises concerns about the target audience in this particular collaboration. “They are targeting young students and children,” he said, adding that it was “a little different than targeting adult students who may think for themselves what it may mean if I go to a Confucius Institute.”
Hartig said: “It’s a very smart move to engage western stakeholders in Chinese public diplomacy efforts, and even making those foreigners pay. This is the very, very interesting aspect. Because you provide the infrastructure and you provide local human resources, you’re also co-financing those institutes. From the Chinese side, that’s a very smart and clever move.”
One NSW parent, Alexander Nilsen, has been a vocal critic, partly due to his belief in Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China as an evil sect. He chose not to send his son to Chatswood Public school after discovering it had a Confucius classroom. “It may be called an ‘education department’ but that’s not really what it is,” he said. “Hanban decides who teaches … what they teach, and the materials they use.”
Another parent of a child learning Chinese in a Confucius classroom, who asked not to be named for fear her child would be disadvantaged, said she had asked for Chinese flags to be removed from the classroom. She said that the principal of her child’s school was aware of the risks associated with the program, even going so far as to ask her to “monitor” the lessons on behalf of the school.
When the classrooms were opened, the Department of Education’s regional director Dr Phil Lambert openly discouraged discussions in the classrooms about controversial subjects such as China’s human rights record, Tibet or Tiananmen.
The confidential 2011 agreement signed between the department and the Confucius Institute headquarters, states: “The Institute activities … shall not contravene the laws and regulations, both in Australia and China.” Such an agreement could rule out discussion about, for example, the status of Taiwan or calls for independence in Tibet or Hong Kong, and as such could limit academic freedom.
A third overseas scholar of Confucius Institutes, Dr Lionel Jensen of Notre Dame University in Indiana, has raised concerns that such language “may be construed as an illegal overreach of jurisdiction”.
A similar arrangement to establish a Confucius Institute inside the Toronto District school board was scrapped in 2014 after heated community protests. Pamela Gough, who serves as a trustee on the board, said that cultural partnerships inflaming sectors of the community are “not necessary or appropriate”.
“The main issue with the Confucius Institute partnership with the Toronto District school board was the strong links that the leadership of Confucius Institutes has with the government of China … there are many other ways to offer enrichment opportunities in Chinese languages, history and culture without necessarily entering into partnerships with organisations such as the Confucius Institute.”
According to the China Daily, there are 1,076 Confucius classrooms at schools worldwide, and 516 Confucius institutes. Universities including Chicago, Penn State, Stockholm University, Lyon University and Canada’s McMaster university have closed down their Confucius institutes, while the conservative National Association of Scholars called for all US universities to close their Confucius institutes, following “improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”
This week China’s ministry of foreign affairs urged Malcolm Turnbull to “discard prejudice” and deepen the bilateral relationship rather than pursue measures aimed at shoring up Australia from the risks of foreign interference, insisting it “does not interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs”. The embassy in China also said the Australian media have “repeatedly fabricated” stories about Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia.