Australian and international experts urge rethink of a world-first deal embedding Confucius Institute classrooms inside the New South Wales education department. Report by Louisa Lim and Anders Furze.
A former senior intelligence analyst for the Australian Government is calling for an urgent review of an arrangement which has allowed a Chinese government-affiliated entity to be embedded within 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 now 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 advisor. “This sort of activity has to be put in the picture of the broader programs – propaganda, influence, cyber ... 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 the deal, the NSW Department of Education Confucius Institute manages Confucius classrooms teaching Chinese in 13 NSW primary and secondary public schools. Half of the four positions in the NSW institute are funded by the department, while the others are funded by the 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 2015 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 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, who teaches in the Confucius classroom at Homebush Boys High School, said institute funding had increased the popularity of Chinese among students. It had also helped pay for excursions to 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 NSW 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.
Shuangyuan Shi, director of the Confucius Institute at the NSW Department of Education, has been quoted in Chinese media saying that because the NSW Confucius Institute belongs to a local government department, it has an “abundant supply of students”, and can target some 700,000 primary and middle school students and 500,000 tertiary students.
► A version of this story was also published in The Guardian Australia.