BY JEFFREY GIL
The first Australian Confucius Institute (CI) opened at the University of Western Australia in 2005. More followed, and there are now 14 CIs as well as 67 Confucius Classrooms (CCs), offshoots of CIs which operate in primary and secondary schools. They have generally been welcomed by universities as a readily available source of funding and resources.
CIs have always had their critics however, with academics, journalists and members of the public labelling them purveyors of Chinese government propaganda and violators of academic freedom. Internationally, such concerns have resulted in the closure of CIs and CCs in America, Canada and several European countries. By comparison, Australia has been much more relaxed.
But a marked change in government and public attitudes towards CIs and CCs has occurred alongside growing concerns over Chinese influence. The NSW government undertook a review of the state’s CCs, and the federal government requested universities register CIs under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
Last month, a protest occurred at the University of Queensland aimed at the CI. In scenes reminiscent of the well-known 2014 protest in Canada over plans to set up CCs in Toronto schools, participants claimed the CI restricts staff and students’ freedom of expression.
Such criticisms have yet to be substantiated, but these events nevertheless indicate CIs may no longer be desirable elements of Chinese language and culture education.
Universities could close their CIs. After all, most teach courses for the general public rather than credit bearing courses aimed at university students, so Chinese language and culture education would continue without them. However, this ignores their contribution to existing university courses through provision of teaching materials and teaching staff. They also organise a range of cultural activities and events, such as conversation groups, language competitions and study trips. Students’ learning experience would suffer as these things would not exist without the CIs.
CI courses for the general public also make Chinese language learning and cultural engagement available to people who don’t want or aren’t able to undertake university study. The Australian government is unlikely to provide the funding and resources necessary for such activities to continue.
Doing nothing in the face of mounting concerns is also unwise, and could lead to the government taking action to make CIs unviable. There is an international precedent: America’s National Defence Authorisation Act declared universities with CIs would not receive government funding for the Chinese Language Flagship program, prompting some universities to close their CIs.
Universities need to make changes to introduce more transparency and strengthen their control over CIs. These should focus on contractual arrangements, hiring practices and the accessibility of such information. There is ample material for universities to consider. Jackson Kwok proposed sensible policy recommendations, and the National Association of Scholars report on CIs in America contains similar recommendations.
Developing Chinese language proficiency and cultural competence is vital for Australia’s interests, and CIs can continue to make a valuable contribution to this goal if they adapt to changing circumstances.
Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University. He is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.
Flinders U does not host a Confucius Institute.