Confucius Institutes and Chinese soft power in Australia

China soft power education

In September 2014, Education Minister Christopher Pyne delivered a talk entitled China and Australia— Our Valued Education Relationship  at Peking University’s Australian Studies Centre. The speech touched on many issues, and was largely uncontentious. However, one particular paragraph is noteworthy for its comments in an area becoming very controversial globally.


The Chinese Government through the Hanban, and in partnership with Australian universities, colleges and schools, has established 13 Confucius Institutes and 35 classrooms across Australia. They promote Chinese language and culture in a friendly, accessible and educational way and we welcome them.


Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are offered by the PRC Government to tertiary institutions and high schools globally, with the promise of instruction in Chinese language and culture at discount prices. The appeal of such an offering is understandable, and in Australia such Institutes and Classrooms can now be found at many major universities and high schools.


The PRC’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) established the Confucius Institutes initiative project in China in 2004 and today, there are more than 440 Confucius Institutes (CIs) and 648 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) worldwide.


The advertised tasks of these CIs and CCs are teaching Chinese language, promoting Chinese culture, and encouraging advanced China studies. While CIs do indeed offer Chinese language training, the aspects of ‘Chinese culture’ being disseminated, and the modes by which this is done, are worthy of further attention.


Communist Party of China (CPC) speeches and texts openly describe CIs as being designed to influence perceptions of China and its policies abroad.  Li Changchun, a Politburo member, says the Institutes are ‘an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up’ and Deputy Education Minister Hao Ping has noted that ‘establishing Confucius Institutes is a strategic plan for increasing our soft power’.


Other CPC cadres are also intimately involved.  Liu Yunshan, former head of the CPC Propaganda Department, recently unveiled the foundation stone for a CI at University College Dublin, while the current propaganda chief Liu Qibao visits CIs globally.  The Hanban director Xu Lin  personally visits CIs around the world and directs how their work should be done, but her recent actions in Portugal shocked global academe. Meanwhile, Hanban deputy director general and party secretary Ma Jianfei is responsible for ensuring that CPC policies are pursued in the CIs.


Locally, CPC influence and control is also evident. The vice chair of the University of Queensland’s CI, for example, is Liu Jianping, the head of the CPC Committee within Tianjin University. In 2013, Professor Fan Hong, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Western Australia, gave a lecture in China entitled ‘China’s “soft power”: the characteristics and future development trends of Confucius Institutes in conducting education abroad’. Further, a Joint Conference of Australian Confucius Institutes was held in Sydney in September 2014, aiming to ‘increase the network’s visibility in Australia’s industry and public policy making communities’. Clearly, these bodies are not simply Chinese versions of British Councils, Goethe Institutes or Alliances Françaises.


Under the agreements signed with foreign universities, the CPC has ultimate control over CI teaching content, hiring and training of staff, budgetary investment, and organisational structure and activities, thereby essentially creating ‘extra-territoriality’ within the foreign universities. Across the world, there has been a growing backlash against CIs and their efforts to manipulate how China and the CPC are represented in the world. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has reportedly suggested that CIs are part of a broader Chinese political agenda. The Washington Post has summarised global concerns, and Foreign Policy provides further details of the debates.


The 2011 debate in the New South Wales Parliament over the issue of Confucius Classrooms was part of the global disaffection with CIs and their ties into schools and universities.  Prominent US scholars such as Marshall Sahlins have criticised the CIs as being agents of Chinese state policy, remarking that CIs ‘are marked by the same “no-go zones” that Beijing enforces on China’s public sphere’, and that there is close CPC surveillance and control over their activities and students.


In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers urged Canadian universities to sever their ties with CIs. This year, the American Association of University Professors issued a report suggesting that CI governance arrangements were ‘inconsistent with principles of academic freedom’, and recommended that universities cease their involvement in CIs unless restrictive and secret arrangements were abrogated.  In April 2014, over 100 professors at the University of Chicago signed a petition calling for a University Senate Council vote against renewing the university’s CI contract, and this has now occurred. In Southeast Asia, CIs induce different concerns about growing Chinese soft power initiatives and their political and cultural influence. Thai scholar Ruji Auethavornpipat has shown how in Thailand, China utilises Princess Sirindhorn to promote the CIs and PRC political norms.


As the administrators of Australian universities take advantage of the cheap Chinese language instruction offered through the Hanban and its subordinate CIs, against the backdrop of the recently announced China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, overseas experience might suggest that a closer examination of the objectives and administrators of these PRC bodies, and their increasing activities aimed at influencing policy both within Australia and elsewhere, is warranted.