The Confucius Institute, an initiative of the Chinese government, promotes Chinese culture and language abroad. It runs 350 programs in 104 countries. According to China’s Propaganda Chief, Li Changchun, it is “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up,” but there are concerns about the nature of its organization and the autonomy of its curriculum.
Director of the UNSW Confucius Institute, Catherine Hlavka, told Tharunka that the UNSW Confucius Institute is comparable to the Alliance Francais or the Goethe Institute, set up by the French and German governments respectively.
However, Lionel Jensen, an Associate Professor at The University of Notre Dame (USA), has described as “astonishing” the scope and influence of the CI. Unlike its Franco-German counterparts, The Confucious Institute is run out of universities, a relationship that some fear undermines the credibility of the Chinese Studies faculty, and possibly the legitimacy of the larger institution.
State Member for Balmain, Jamie Parker, has also voiced his concerns regarding the position of the Confucius Institute within tertiary institutions. Parker also said he was approached by members of the community who have petitioned against the CI presence in public schools.
According to Parker, the Confucius Institute is directly linked to and funded by the Communist People’s Party. “Our concern is that it will be used as a way to express Beijing orthodoxy on a lot of issues which should really be the domain of debate and public engagement”, he told Tharunka.
These issues include the practices of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, sympathising with Tibet and the Dalai Lama, Taiwan’s independence, participating in pro-democracy activities, and human rights groups or Christian groups.
A UNSW academic who wishes to remain anonymous told Tharunka that staff have been instructed not to speak to the media about the issue, and that doing so might be damaging to their careers, but former diplomat and visiting Professor at the University of Sydney, Dr. Jocelyn Chey, was more forthcoming with her concerns.
Chey said that while China needs to expand its program of cultural exchanges, she’s worried that the Confucius Institute’s funding ventures in universities damage its legitamacy. “It can prejudice the independent work of researchers”, she said. “It’s nothing specific about China, it’s just a matter of academic independence.”
With regards to Chey’s remarks, Hlavka said that politics is not the role of the Confucius Institute. “Our mandate is to promote Chinese language and culture, there is no other function… it’s a very positive thing within the university environment.”
This may be the case, but Tharunka has found that William Chui, a board member for UNSW’s Confucius Institute, also and simultaneously acts as the president and co-founder of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC) and is Chairman of the Oceania Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (OCPPRC).
With regards to the complex and controversial geo-political situation in Taiwan and Tibet, housing a board member so deeply invested in such a topic might be construed as a conflict of interests.
Australian National University PhD student Michael Churchman, who recently published a paper in The China Heritage Quarterly, believes it’s naïve to view these institutions as apolitical. “They exist for the express purpose of letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China”, he told Tharunka.
Parker also expressed his disbelief “They say they’re not political, but in China culture is political. Culture is an intrinsically political subject in China because there is one way that culture should be understood, and that’s the (Chinese) government’s position.”
A Mandarin student, who chose to withhold her name, spoke to Tharunka about her experience at the Institute, as a scholarship recipient for a China language study tour. “My class mates and I marvelled at the efforts that were made to show us an idealised version of China. We worked our way through various hotels and VIP guestrooms along the Silk Road. While I am extremely grateful for this experience, I can also attest that it was clear that the China that was being portrayed to us by the Confucius Institute as foreigners was a rapid departure from the China that most Chinese people know”.
Hlavka insisted that there’s no intention that there would be any integration of the Confucius Institute into UNSW, telling Tharunka “our role (in the School of International Studies) is to provide resources to staff if they’re seeking it”. However, there have been many instances internationally where universities, fearful of having their funding cut, have made efforts to placate the Confucius Institute through self-censorship.
In 2008, The University of Tel Aviv in Israel shut down an art installation depicting Falun Gong practitioners being executed and tortured, and in 2010, 174 University of Chicago faculty employees protested against the implementation of a Confucius Institute on their campus, labelling them as “an academically and politically ambiguous initiative”.
Locally, in 2007, teaching members from The University of Melbourne voiced their objections and concerns about the institute being located within their Faculty of Arts, which resulted in it being relocated off-campus.
At the University of Newcastle, the organisation has completely merged with the Chinese Studies department, resulting in a student petition for ‘truth, accountability (and) transparency’ as several have been left “feeling betrayed that they’ve been palmed off to an external body”. “No one is really keen about the concept, except the university”, one student told Tharunka.
The UNSW administration refused the opportunity to comment with regards to these concerns, but it’s clear that the university needs to staunchly guard its academic independence, regardless of the ideologies of its benefactors.
Confucius Institutes from other universities, as well as the Australian Office for the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, were unavailable for comment.