Chinese donations raising red flags
Jun 10, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
Generous donations by the Chinese Government to universities and schools are fuelling fears that China is looking to strengthening its political influence in Australia through a soft approach.
Journalists Angus Grigg and Primrose Riordan argue in the Australian Financial Review that the Chinese Government is engaged in “a concerted campaign to promote Beijing’s strategic interests in Australia through deals covering all the key areas of society”.
Their claims follows a report by Fairfax Media that NSW and Victorian public schools are being paid $10,000 a year by a Chinese government body to offer its Confucius Classrooms language and culture program.
Despite concerns expressed by parents about the content of the scheme - which is administered by the Confucius Institute through the government-controlled ‘Hanban’ Office of the Chinese Language Council - the NSW government has recently expanded the program.
It is now delivered in four NSW primary schools: Chatswood, Kensington, Hurstville South and Rouse Hill; and nine high schools: Coffs Harbour, Fort Street, Kingsgrove North, Mosman, Rooty Hill, Bonnyrigg, Chatswood, Concord and Homebush Boys.
Chinese donations have flowed to Australian universities in recent years, with the University of Technology Sydney receiving Chinese Government funding for a new library and a gift of $1.8 million from the Yuhu property group towards an Australia-China Relations Institute.
Yuhu also provided $3.5 million for a new cultural institute at the University of Western Sydney, a facility described by UWS as “an important point of access to Chinese culture, providing resources, support and expertise for those wishing to study and research one of the world’s oldest and most enduring societies”.
Seven Australian Universities have provided a base for Chinese Government-funded Confucius Institutes, non-profit public institutions promoting Chinese language and culture, since their inception in 2004.
Melbourne University, QUT, UQ, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, La Trobe University, UWA and Confucius Institute in Adelaide form part of a network of 495 such institutes in 130 countries.
Grigg and Riordan argue Australian concerns about the agenda of the institutes echo sentiments expressed in the US, where the Chinese government has been accused of seeking to exert control university students by funding Confucius Institutes on university campuses.
Fairfax Media says they are “viewed uneasily by some China watchers” and since 2014, eight universities worldwide have closed Confucius Institutes “after deciding they were too closely directed by Beijing, restricted academic freedom or even - in the case of Japan's Osaka Sangyo University - for allegedly providing a front for espionage”.
Grigg and Riordan claim the Chinese government is looking to extend its reach outside of education.
“To date money linked to China’s Communist Party has flowed to both major political parties, universities, primary schools, the national broadcaster and this week to the country’s biggest media companies,” they argue.
They quote Professor Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University’s National Security College, who said: “We have to assume that there is a larger strategy by the Communist Party to shift domestic public opinion in Australia on sensitive issues such as the US alliance and the South China Sea.
“The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge says Confucius Classrooms are “an unaccountable and unregulated intrusion by a foreign government into NSW public schools.
“The teachers…are subjected to none of the accreditation or training expected for public school teachers,” he said.
“There are no mechanisms for auditing the Chinese government’s certification, leaving students exposed to a questionable standard of instruction and safety.
“The age-appropriateness and sensitivity of the curriculum content and materials are left to principals to evaluate, despite most school leaders having no Chinese language skills.
“Most Confucius Classrooms operate with no department official having any idea what is being taught or how disputed issues such as human rights and contested territories are handled.
“These classes might be free to Treasury but they are paid for by exposing children to a foreign government’s propaganda machine.
“This state should follow the lead of Toronto and replace foreign government-chosen ‘volunteers’ with accredited NSW teachers using age appropriate and sensitive materials.”
NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli says parents are informed on the content of the program through newsletters and school websites, but regulation of Confucius Classrooms remains up to individual principals.
Mr Piccoli refused to answer questions on the program put to him in Parliament last December regarding payments, teacher hiring, the NSW government's memorandum of understanding with ‘Hanban’, or bureaucrats' trips to China.
However, an education department spokesperson told Fairfax Media: "The Confucius Institute aims to improve students' understanding of Chinese language and culture, and facilitates partner school relationships with China.
"The teaching assistants complete a Working with Children check and mandatory training, and their salaries are paid by Confucius Institute headquarters.
"Should controversial issues or politically sensitive topics arise, they are dealt with in the same way as they would be in other subject areas, i.e teachers ensure students are aware of all the points of view."