AUSTRALIA: Warning – be wary of Confucius institutes

Universities around the world could lose their academic freedom by accepting grants from the Chinese government to create Confucius institutes, a former senior Australian diplomat has warned.

Professor Jocelyn Chey says academics should be aware of potential bias when Confucius institutes sought to undertake teaching or research as part of a university's mainstream activities. Because of the institutes' close links with the Chinese government and the Communist Party, Chey said this could lead at best to a "dumbing down" of research and at worst could produce propaganda.

An expert on Australia-China relations in the Department Foreign Affairs for 20 years, Chey has lived in China and was Australian Consul-General in Hong Kong in the 1990s. She is now a visiting professor at the University of Sydney, which ironically will shortly become the fourth Australian university to establish a Confucius institute.

In an address last month to a private think-tank, the Sydney Institute, Chey said that with its growing economic might, the Chinese government was making greater use of ‘soft power’. This was part of its diplomatic goal of countering the influence of Taiwan and achieving ‘great power’ status.

"The Chinese Communist Party sees promotion of Chinese language and culture as a way of creating a favourable public opinion climate, particularly among overseas Chinese," she says. "This programme is modelled on the century-old Alliance Francaise system but differs in that it is more closely managed by the Chinese government."

Although China only began establishing Confucius institutes in foreign universities three years ago, the spread and growth in numbers has been astonishing. More than 150 are now operating in 52 countries with American universities having established 28, Thailand 13 and South Korea 10.

"It is notable that both these latter countries have in recent years developed strong trade ties with China," Chey says. "The soft power approach is now being applied to all countries maintaining diplomatic relations with China and particularly to those in the Asia-Pacific region, those with a large ethnic Chinese community, those with natural resources needed by Chinese industry and those with close relations with Washington."

Australia in particular is seen by the Chinese Communist Party to belong to all of these categories and so has become a special target for soft power diplomacy.

China's growing economic power had given it a greater role in international affairs and a new ability to win friends and influence people, Chey says. An internationally active China has emerged, more confident and more assertive and China's diplomats are more skilled in lobbying and tailoring their propaganda to the societies in which they are more active than they were even a decade ago.

"The objective is to secure wide support for China from overseas Chinese, from the international community in general and from business and opinion leaders in turn, so that these in turn may influence the development of US foreign policy in ways favourable to Beijing.

"The soft power approach is now being applied to all countries maintaining diplomatic relations with China and particularly to those in the Asia-Pacific region, those with a large ethnic Chinese community, those with natural resources needed by Chinese industry and those with close relations with Washington."

Curiously, given the way the Chinese Communist government has attacked followers of Confucius in the past, his name has become a symbol of one of China's cultural diplomacy goals: to unite ethnic Chinese around the world and create a friendly environment for the conduct of international trade and diplomacy.

The project to establish a network of cultural centres borrowed the name of Confucius for this reason although Chey says that, generally speaking, the institutes are not intended to propagate Confucianism.

Chey's claims about the political role of the institutes are supported by the fact that the programme for establishing them is administered in China by the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. Known as the Hanban, the office is linked to the Chinese Ministry of Education and governed by representatives of that ministry and several other government departments.

The Hanban is chaired by a state councillor – which Chey says is an indication of the importance attached to its soft power activities – and it has published rules and regulations for the establishment of institutes on its website.

This highlights the basic differences between the institutes and local operations of the Alliance Francaise – an organisation identified by some academics as the first and classic example of soft power and the model for the Confucius institutes. The big difference between the two organisations is the degree of control exercised by the French and Chinese governments over administration and operations of these offshoots.

Although the French government subsidises the Alliance Francaise by an amount equivalent to 5% of the total budget, outside the Paris headquarters local operations are independently run franchises. There is no government representation in their administration and they are not hosted or sponsored by local universities or community organisations.

On the other hand, unlike the French and other equivalent organisations such as the Goethe institutes, the Confucius institutes are strategically located in various foreign universities. This gives China some control over the study of Chinese culture and language at western universities that they normally would not have.

As Chey points out, one reason for the institutes' reliance on host universities is clearly budgetary. The institutes' programmes are based on cooperation with local host organisations so the costs borne by the Chinese government are minimised – but still substantial. The Hanban could not offload these costs to Chinese universities, with whom western institutions must be linked, as they are suffering financially after the government's policy led to massive expansion of their campuses in the last decade while restricting their ability to recoup costs by raising student fees.

The Hanban had ‘sold’ the institutes to Chinese universities as cost-neutral or even potentially a way to increase revenue through enrolment of more foreign students. Nevertheless, they will still need ongoing subsidies from China if they are to be viable over the longer term.

But not all western academics have welcomed creation of the institutes, with some warning they are really a propaganda arm of the Chinese government and the Communist Party. At the University of Melbourne, where a Confucius Institute was established in June, staff in the Chinese studies department raised objections to it being located within the faculty of arts. As a result, it was set up away from the main campus and with Nanjing University as its Chinese partner.

Similarly at the University of Sydney, academics objected to plans to have an institute operating on campus because they claimed the programmes it would offer would be largely propaganda. But deputy vice-chancellor, Professor John Hearn, said the autonomy granted to the university would ensure that the five-year, renewable agreement with the Chinese government meant the institute would be led and managed by the university.

"Negotiations have reached agreement on the autonomy and quality control by the university for any of its courses, the management of the institute and the development of new teaching methods and technology to improve the delivery and effectiveness," Hearn said.

Director of the Confucius Institute at Melbourne University is Barbara Hilder, who has been seconded from the Australian Trade Commission. Hilder rejects any suggestion the institute would act as the propaganda arm of the Chinese government or the Communist Party.

She says none of the non-award courses being offered by the institute are connected with those being run by the university. Instead, most of the courses are Chinese language classes run for the corporate sector and she chooses the teachers who take them. The Melbourne institute has an annual budget of A$800,000 (US$706,000) and this includes funding over three years from the Chinese government, believed to amount to more than $100,000.

Chey says a key unstated factor in the formulation of China's foreign policy is the role of the overseas Chinese community: "The corollary of this nationalist propaganda line is that if Taiwanese, Hong Kong citizens and overseas Chinese in general were re-educated in Chinese language, understood officially promoted versions of Chinese history and participated in Chinese patriotic events, they would become more patriotic," she says.