The Chinese government-sponsored program offers Mandarin lessons around the world, but the NSW government and a new film have raised questions about a darker side to Confucius Institutes.
The NSW government committed to respect Chinese “cultural customs” and abide by “Chinese laws and regulations” when it established its Confucius Classrooms program in a joint venture with the Chinese government, even though the program was run in NSW public schools, documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal.
SBS News has obtained documents including correspondence and the original contract signed by the NSW Department of Education and China’s Hanban agency to establish Confucius Classrooms in NSW in 2011 under the then Labor government.
The revelation comes as a documentary questioning the influence of Confucius Institutes premiered in Australia on Thursday.
The NSW Coalition government announced in May that it is reviewing its Confucius Classrooms program amid concerns over inappropriate foreign government influence.
Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms promote Chinese language and cultural exchange around the world. The institutes are partnerships between the Office of the Chinese Language Council, known as Hanban, and hundreds of overseas universities, and the Classroom programs are offshoots run in primary and high schools.
The NSW program, run in partnership with the NSW Department of Education by a subsidiary of the Chinese government agency Hanban, has offered sponsored Mandarin lessons, teaching materials and Chinese assistant teachers to 13 NSW public schools since 2012.
According to the NSW Department of Education, schools were paid up to $40,000 by Hanban to establish the program, plus ongoing contributions of at least $10,000 a year and the free services of “native language assistants” from China.
It is the only foreign government program embedded in the Department of Education and the only one of its kind in Australia. In Victoria, the Confucius Institutes at the universities of Melbourne and La Trobe administer Confucius Classroom programs across 12 public and private schools.
A spokesman for the department told SBS News this week, “The Confucius Classrooms program is currently under review by the NSW Government and as such at this time it is inappropriate to comment.”
Intercultural awareness or propaganda?
The Chinese Language Teachers Association of NSW, which represents over 160 Mandarin teachers, has said there is no evidence of “political content” in the classes, that the curriculum was developed by the NSW Board of Studies, and locally qualified teachers, not the assistants, do all the teaching in NSW schools.
But a new film has fuelled further questions about the institutes.
Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Doris Liu's documentary ‘In the Name of Confucius’ documents the Toronto School Board’s acrimonious battle over the Confucius Classrooms program. The board voted in 2014 to oust the program after a debate that split the local Chinese community.
Ms Liu, speaking via video link from the UK, told an audience at NSW parliament on Thursday: “You have to think about what strings are attached, what kind of costs are coming with the free Chinese education provided by Confucius Institutes.
“Do you really want to sacrifice your academic freedom, human rights and fundamental values to this free education opportunity?”
The film also follows the experience of Sonia Zhao, a Chinese Falun Gong practitioner who came to Canada as a Confucius Institute Mandarin teacher but later sought asylum.
Falun Gong, a modern spiritual discipline, is banned in China.
Confucius Institute teacher contracts in Canada had stipulated that no Falun Gong practitioners would be allowed to work for the institutes and Ms Zhao successfully challenged the contract over discrimination in Canada’s human rights commission. The university, McMaster University, later closed its Confucius Institute, becoming one of the first to do so.
The NSW documents show the Chinese partner would fund and appoint half the board of the department’s Confucius Institute but made no mention of Falun Gong or the terms governing Hanban’s hiring practices.
But the NSW contract said: “The Institute activities must be in accordance with the Confucius Institute constitution, and also respect cultural customs, shall not contravene the laws and regulations, both in Australia and China.”
Western concerns grow
Australia has the third highest number of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms after the US and UK. The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004 and Beijing has poured billions of dollars into their expansion. There are now about 525 in 146 countries around the world, offering language programs and cultural exchanges.
Defenders say they are non-profit public institutions promoting intercultural understanding akin to Germany’s Goethe Institut or France’s Alliance Francaise.
The University of Sydney's institute was established in 2008 and offers non-award Mandarin courses through the university's Centre for Continuing Education. Its director Xing Jin told SBS News the university had oversight over the curriculum and had several senior university academics on its board.
But the institutes have drawn increasing criticism in recent years. About eight universities in the US and Europe have closed the institutes on their campuses amid concerns they are designed to leverage Beijing’s political agenda in western countries and stifle opposing views on issues like Tibet and Taiwan.
While hard evidence of problems around Confucius Institutes has been thin, in February the US FBI director told a Senate inquiry the agency was investigating dozens of US Confucius Institutes over concerns they are part of covert spying and influence operations.
And in March, the UK’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into the UK’s Confucius Institutes.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment.