On the evening of July 24, 2014 as academics arrived in the Portuguese city of Braga for a Chinese studies conference, staff from the Chinese Government-run Confucius Institute were at a nearby apartment hurriedly ripping pages from conference programs.
- Spy agencies are briefing universities about risks to research and intellectual property
- US senate report suggest Confucius staff be registered as foreign agents
- Host universities insist there are no problems
The programs had been stolen earlier that day from conference hosts the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) on the orders of the global head of the Confucius Institute because they included material about another sponsor, which happened to be a Taiwanese institution.
It sparked an academic scandal, with the conference organisers publishing an open letter denouncing the actions of the Confucius Institute as an attack on academic freedom, but apart from a handful of media reports the incident did not attract a huge amount of attention — in Australia it was barely reported.
In 2019, such muted responses seem a world away as China’s rising power and quest for soft influence has increased tensions with the US and other western countries, as a key part of this soft power push, Confucius Institutes around the world are coming under increased scrutiny.
Last week, an eight-month US Senate sub-committee investigation released its final report into the activities of Confucius Institutes on US campuses.
It said that far from being independent centres of learning promoting language classes and Chinese history, the centres were tightly controlled arms of the Chinese Government and questioned whether employees should be registered as foreign agents.
China responded by calling the findings “baseless accusations” and an attempt to politicise the institutes, which provide academic learning centres for cultural exchange, partnerships and language lessons.
Following a string of incidents at Australian universities over the last few years and an ongoing review into the NSW Confucius classrooms program that runs language and culture lessons in primary and high schools, there has been renewed focus on the institute’s role here.
There are currently 548 Confucius Institutes and 568 Confucius classrooms in primary and high schools worldwide, with 14 institutes on Australian university campuses and 67 classrooms in schools across several Australian states.
They are run in partnership between a host university and a university back in China with the Chinese Government Office of Chinese Language Council International — also known as Hanban — employing the Chinese staff and director.
Spy agencies warn universities
As other countries start pushing back against China’s soft power and Confucius Institutes, Australian security organisations have begun trying to build relationships with universities and provide briefings on what they see as a potential danger to academic freedom, sensitive research and intellectual property.
Last year, ASIO made contact with 18 different universities, research institutes and a number of internet suppliers to those universities.
“Our briefings provided advice on threats to university students, staff, intellectual property, IT networks and reputations; and supported university efforts to protect and commercialise innovative research.” the agency’s 2018 annual report said.
Ross Babbage is the former head of strategic analysis at the Australian Office of National Assessments and now runs the Strategy Forum, which advises governments and business on security challenges.
He believes the academic community has vastly underestimated the risks associated with Confucius Institutes.
“While the cover of the Confucius Institutes is primarily language and cultural training, they fit into a large framework of scores of other things they are doing in foreign countries, including in Australia — things like spying, which is massive and we know most of it is coming from China,” he told the ABC.
“When anyone wants to have any kind of public discussion [on human rights or Tibet or Taiwan] a lot of the instigators for counter-reaction to that, and the shouting down of anyone who wants to talk, come from people associated with these Confucius Institutes.”
The agreement between universities and schools under the Confucius Institutes state that staff cannot do anything that is not authorised by the Chinese Government, which critics argue will be anything that is contrary to the views of Beijing and directly contradicts principles of academic freedom and open debate.
Lowy Institute Fellow and China foreign relations expert Richard McGregor questioned why Australia could not fund its own language programs and cultural centres.
“I don’t understand why our universities have them; we are a rich country, our universities have a lot of money — why are we contracting out teaching Chinese to effectively a Chinese Government organisation,” he told the ABC.
“Learning Chinese and building Chinese language skills is important, why is it that we need China to fund it?”.
The answer lies in part in the billions of dollars in funding cut by successive governments over decades, leaving universities to rely on international students, many from China, and private sources like Confucius Institutes to fund programs.
Mr Babbage said universities were at a distinct disadvantage in this situation.
“I think it’s because universities are fiercely independent, but they haven’t done their homework,” he said.
“There is also a degree of naivety — there wouldn’t be too many people on Australian campuses who’ve really got their head around this.”
But increasing numbers of universities are starting to close down Confucius Institutes and reject proposals for new ones.
The University of Massachusetts in the US announced last month it was closing down its institute after 12 years, citing academic freedom and censorship concerns. Institutes have also been closed at universities in the US states of Texas, North Carolina and Michigan.
Meanwhile in Canada, the Toronto School Board closed Institute-run classrooms in schools after mass protests by parents, and European institutions in France and Sweden have also been closed in recent years.
Academic freedom called into question
There has been a string of incidents involving disputes over academic freedom and Chinese students and authorities — many of them in Australia, which after the US and UK, has the highest number of institutes in the world.
In 2013, when the University of Sydney shut down a talk by the Dalai Lama on campus, many saw the Confucius Institute as being involved in the lobbying efforts to stop the initially approved event.
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At Newcastle University, an academic was forced to apologise after Chinese students secretly recorded him describing Hong Kong and Taiwan as politically separate from mainland China.
The video went viral on Chinese social media and prompted complaints from the Chinese consulate to the university.
Newcastle relies heavily on international student revenue with overseas students making up almost 20 per cent of enrolments.
A University of Sydney academic said the Chinese consulate tried to shut down a Tiananmen Square forum on the anniversary of the protest and killings of Chinese students in 1989.
Monash University withdrew a textbook that included a quiz question that offended Chinese students in 2017. The academic who ran the quiz was suspended, and later left the university.
Mr Babbage said the activities of Confucius Institutes were part of a wider pattern of activity where China sought to ensure governments, students, academics, expat Chinese communities and business followed a Beijing-determined narrative.
“They will complain vociferously when anyone on campus says anything they don’t like about Taiwan or Tibet, or for that matter, the latest estimates that suggest a million plus Uyghurs are being held in essentially concentration camps,” he said.
But some universities, like La Trobe University in Melbourne, told the ABC there had been no incidents of censorship or academic interference since they accepted the Confucius Institute onto their campuses.
“The La Trobe Confucius Institute takes no position on the academic endeavours of the University, irrespective of the topic,” a La Trobe spokesperson said in a statement.
“Its role is solely the promotion of Chinese language and culture.”
A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said the university was proud of the links its institute fostered with China and was not aware of any academic censorship issues.
“We are not aware of attempts at academic censorship on campus, they said in a statement.
“We ensure all our policies and quality assurance processes are enforced, and conduct extensive due diligence on any research with potential national security implications.”
Some academics also cautioned against making assumptions that censorship incidents are linked to the institutes.
“One thing they have done though is deliberately focus on non-controversial aspects of Chinese culture like arts, festivals and things like that that aren’t going to provoke a lot of political tension,” lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University Dr Jonathan Benney told the ABC.
“I would say in the last few years protests have been driven by students themselves, and while there may be some background manipulation, I don’t think that normally comes from the Confucius Institute.”
Request for comment and interviews were not responded to by Hanban and a number of Confucius Institutes based in Australia.
By Robert Burton-Bradley