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Confucius Institutes and Chinese soft power in Australia
Confucius Institutes and Chinese soft power in Australia
Posted 24/11/2014 by Geoff Wade
In September 2014, Education Minister Christopher Pyne delivered a talk entitled China and
Australia— Our Valued Education Relationship at Peking University’s Australian Studies
Centre. The speech touched on many issues, and was largely uncontentious. However, one
particular paragraph is noteworthy for its comments in an area becoming very controversial
The Chinese Government through the Hanban, and in partnership with
Australian universities, colleges and schools, has established 13
Confucius Institutes and 35 classrooms across Australia. They promote
Chinese language and culture in a friendly, accessible and educational
way and we welcome them.
Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are offered by the PRC Government to tertiary
institutions and high schools globally, with the promise of instruction in Chinese language
and culture at discount prices. The appeal of such an offering is understandable, and in
Australia such Institutes and Classrooms can now be found at many major universities and
The PRC’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) established the
Confucius Institutes initiative project in China in 2004 and today, there are more than 440
Confucius Institutes (CIs) and 648 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) worldwide.
The advertised tasks of these CIs and CCs are teaching Chinese language, promoting
Chinese culture, and encouraging advanced China studies. While CIs do indeed offer Chinese
language training, the aspects of ‘Chinese culture’ being disseminated, and the modes by
which this is done, are worthy of further attention.
Communist Party of China (CPC) speeches and texts openly describe CIs as being designed
to influence perceptions of China and its policies abroad. Li Changchun, a Politburo
member, says the Institutes are ‘an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up’
and Deputy Education Minister Hao Ping has noted that ‘establishing Confucius Institutes is
a strategic plan for increasing our soft power’.
Other CPC cadres are also intimately involved. Liu Yunshan, former head of the CPC
Propaganda Department, recently unveiled the foundation stone for a CI at University
College Dublin, while the current propaganda chief Liu Qibao visits CIs globally. The Hanban
director Xu Lin personally visits CIs around the world and directs how their work should be
done, but her recent actions in Portugal shocked global academe. Meanwhile, Hanban
deputy director general and party secretary Ma Jianfei is responsible for ensuring that CPC
policies are pursued in the CIs.
Locally, CPC influence and control is also evident. The vice chair of the University of
Queensland’s CI, for example, is Liu Jianping, the head of the CPC Committee within Tianjin
University. In 2013, Professor Fan Hong, director of the Confucius Institute at the University
of Western Australia, gave a lecture in China entitled ‘China’s “soft power”: the
characteristics and future development trends of Confucius Institutes in conducting
education abroad’. Further, a Joint Conference of Australian Confucius Institutes was held in
Sydney in September 2014, aiming to ‘increase the network’s visibility in Australia’s industry
and public policy making communities’. Clearly, these bodies are not simply Chinese
versions of British Councils, Goethe Institutes or Alliances FranÃ§aises.
Under the agreements signed with foreign universities, the CPC has ultimate control over CI
teaching content, hiring and training of staff, budgetary investment, and organisational
structure and activities, thereby essentially creating ‘extra-territoriality’ within the foreign
universities. Across the world, there has been a growing backlash against CIs and their
efforts to manipulate how China and the CPC are represented in the world. The Canadian
Security Intelligence Service has reportedly suggested that CIs are part of a broader Chinese
political agenda. The Washington Post has summarised global concerns, and Foreign Policy
provides further details of the debates.
The 2011 debate in the New South Wales Parliament over the issue of Confucius Classrooms
was part of the global disaffection with CIs and their ties into schools and universities.
Prominent US scholars such as Marshall Sahlins have criticised the CIs as being agents of
Chinese state policy, remarking that CIs ‘are marked by the same “no-go zones” that Beijing
enforces on China’s public sphere’, and that there is close CPC surveillance and control over
their activities and students.
In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers urged Canadian universities to
sever their ties with CIs. This year, the American Association of University Professors issued
a report suggesting that CI governance arrangements were ‘inconsistent with principles of
academic freedom’, and recommended that universities cease their involvement in CIs
unless restrictive and secret arrangements were abrogated. In April 2014, over 100
professors at the University of Chicago signed a petition calling for a University Senate
Council vote against renewing the university’s CI contract, and this has now occurred. In
Southeast Asia, CIs induce different concerns about growing Chinese soft power initiatives
and their political and cultural influence. Thai scholar Ruji Auethavornpipat has shown how
in Thailand, China utilises Princess Sirindhorn to promote the CIs and PRC political norms.
As the administrators of Australian universities take advantage of the cheap Chinese
language instruction offered through the Hanban and its subordinate CIs, against the
backdrop of the recently announced China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, overseas
experience might suggest that a closer examination of the objectives and administrators of
these PRC bodies, and their increasing activities aimed at influencing policy both within
Australia and elsewhere, is warranted.
â¢ China soft power education