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Confucius Institutes and Chinese soft power in Australia

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Confucius Institutes and Chinese soft power in Australia

Posted 24/11/2014 by Geoff Wade

/Wikimedia Commons

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

high schools.

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 Françaises.

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.


• China soft power education