Xi Jinping opened Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute at RMIT University in Melbourne in 2010, when he was vice president. Photo: AFP/William West

Is Beijing deploying influence in Australia? The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which seeks to improve the visibility, nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and political processes, is probing this issue.

The attorney general’s department has written to universities that host Confucius Institutes, asking them to register the institutes under the scheme. Confucius Institutes are Chinese language and culture centers set up through partnerships between an Australian university, a Chinese university and Hanban – an organization that operates directly under China’s Ministry of Education. Critics of these institutes say that Hanban give Beijing influence, if not control, over Chinese language and culture education.

However, Australian universities have so far reportedly chosen not to register the institutes under the scheme.

What are Confucius Institutes? And do they disseminate Chinese propaganda?

Confucian confusion

Australia has 13 Confucius Institutes at 13 universities; one more operates under the New South Wales Department of Education. There are also 67 Confucius Classrooms, which support Chinese language education in schools. The latter are usually attached to a Confucius Institute.

According to Hanban’s website, Confucius Institutes, “Have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world.”

The usual process for establishing a Confucius Institute involves Chinese and Australian universities jointly submitting an application to Hanban. If approved, Hanban and the Australian university provide equal funding.

Hanban seems a generous sponsor. It provides start-up funding, annual funding of US$100,000, teaching materials and teaching staff. In return, the Australian university provides office space and a director; a Chinese university supplies a deputy director.

Confucius Institutes are established on five-year contracts, which can be renewed. Schools that host a Confucius Classroom receive A$10,000 in upfront funding, as well as books and other materials to the value of about A$10,000 each year.

What do they teach?

All Confucius Institutes teach Chinese language and culture. Language courses may focus on everyday Chinese, such as at University of Sydney’s Confucius Institute, or business Chinese, such as at University of Melbourne’s Confucius Institute. The culture courses vary – from calligraphy to cooking to tai chi.

Many Confucius Institutes also run a range of activities and events for a general audience. The University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute, for instance, runs a China Briefing Series – public lectures on political, economic and cultural developments in China.

Confucius Institutes also organize translating and interpreting services, administer Chinese language proficiency test, coordinate language competitions and arrange study tours to China.

Some Confucius Institutes specialize. At Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, for instance,  it focuses on professional development for teachers and supports Chinese language and culture education in schools. At Griffith University on the Gold Coast, the institute focuses on language and culture training for tourism. The Confucius Institute at RMIT University in Melbourne mainly teaches Chinese medicine.

Courses are short and are aimed at the general public or specific audiences, such as business people. For the most part, Confucius Institutes don’t offer courses for credits that count towards a degree, but institute staff may do some teaching in Chinese language courses offered by the university.

‘As innocent as strawberries’

The materials Hanban provides, including textbooks, are published in China but it is up to the institute if and how to use them. One director Asia Times: “We get more than 3,000 books, journals and also DVDs, which are very useful in our classroom teaching.”

The University of Sydney’s courses are based on the textbook series Integrated Chinese, published by Cheng & Tsui, an independent publisher based in Boston, USA.

Confucius Institute staff say such materials don’t push Chinese government propaganda. As one director put it, the content is “as innocent as strawberries… It looks like the language teaching material for any other language you might want to pick up from a democratic parliamentary state.”

The concerns of the institutes appear to be more of a practical rather than a political, nature. At a languages and cultures university colloquium in 2017, for example, a teacher working at a Confucius Classroom explained that the TV, desktop computer and printer Hanban donated were not useful because the school was already equipped with smartboards and teachers had laptops. He also said students were unable to read the books Hanban had donated.

Sensitivites avoided

Still, Confucius Institutes do focus on the positive aspects of China: A recent study of Confucius Institutes’ activities, including those in Australia, found they focused on traditional Chinese culture and generally avoided politics.

Sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or the issue of Tibet are ignored, the study found; it concludes that Confucius Institutes portray a selective view of China.

Whether this means the institutes are deemed to be exerting influence on the part of the Chinese government will be an interesting test of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

Chinese Premier Li Kequiang talks to former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull at a press conference in Canberra in March 2017. Photo: AFP / David Gray

# This report appeared first in The Conversation. The original version can be accessed here

Also read: How should Australia respond to China’s influence in our universities?

And: University China centers are vulnerable to vested interests because of a lack of funding

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

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