Last December, the federal government put four bills before parliament framed to head off foreign interference in this country's institutions. The primary concern was, and remains, China — more precisely, the intelligence organs of the Chinese Communist Party. This past week, a striking illustration of why such measures have become necessary played out at Victoria University in Melbourne.
Last December, the federal government put four bills before parliament framed to head off foreign interference in this country’s institutions. The primary concern was, and remains, China — more precisely, the intelligence organs of the Chinese Communist Party. This past week, a striking illustration of why such measures have become necessary played out at Victoria University in Melbourne.
Members of the Chinese community and the local media company Journey West Media arranged a screening of Canadian director Doris Liu’s acclaimed documentary about the functioning of Confucius Institutes around the world. A lecture theatre at Victoria University was booked and paid for and dozens of people registered for the event. Then the university pulled the plug on the screening.
The film, In the Name of Confucius, shows how the Communist Party controls Confucius Institutes around the world, with particular emphasis on case studies in Canada. There are hundreds of such institutes worldwide (16 in Australia) and controversy about their work is growing.
The Victoria University booking was confirmed by the room booking co-ordinator on August 29 for 7pm on the evening of September 21. Ten days earlier, the university’s director of facilities emailed the organisers that the booking for September 23 (sic) had been cancelled because the theatre was double-booked.
When reminded that the booking was, in fact, for September 21, the university didn’t blink. The coordinator for Journey West Media was informed in an email stating that the booking for September 21 was being cancelled - the theatre had been double booked. A series of emails followed in which it was claimed that all other theatres were also booked out and that none of them was available on any alternative date.
The screening was moved to a hall at Scots Church on Collins Street. About 200 attended. Photographs taken on the night of September 21, however, show that the lecture theatre that had supposedly been double-booked was in fact empty, as were the other lecture theatres. This is not surprising, given that term had just ended and the vacation had begun that evening.
I headed a panel discussion after the screening. The documentary deserves a wide audience. It contains quite remarkable footage of developments in Canada, especially at McMaster University and the Toronto District School Board, with a striking resemblance to what has just happened at Victoria University. It seems rather ironic that the very attempt to screen a Canadian film would meet with just the kind of treatment in Australia that the film documents in Canada.
What the film also documents, though, is that things blew up in Canada. Both McMaster University and the school board decided to make a stand against the Confucius Institutes, their contractual and funding models and their manipulation from Beijing.
Perhaps this incident demonstrates that the matter needs a good public airing here, also. If you haven’t been following the thread on Confucius Institutes, here’s the bottom line. The scheme is a multibillion-dollar undertaking by the Chinese Communist Party to extend its soft power around the world. Ostensibly, it is doing no more than such well-known cultural organisations as Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute: teaching French or German language and culture courses. But the Chinese courses are party controlled and propagandist in nature.
The materials, prepared in Beijing, are not based on Chinese language and culture but on communist propaganda. The contracts, also prepared in Beijing, require that the teachers at Confucius Institutes be hired by the Chinese authorities and adhere to strict guidelines as regards history and geopolitics.
The funding comes from Beijing and there are close links between the institutes, in country after country, and the Chinese embassies and consulates in those countries — including in Australia.
What happened at Victoria University is clearly odd. Whether the facilities’ administrators acted on their own initiative, in order to avoid a problem with the Chinese consulate, or following communication with consulate or Confucius Institute staff, is unclear. But it hardly matters. A documentary film about events in Canada was pushed off the university’s campus on trumped-up grounds and had to be screened elsewhere.
What is to be done? The film points in the right direction. We need a public inquiry into the way in which Confucius Institutes work. Given the explicit rejection by Xi Jinping’s China of all the human rights values and democratic principles that our society and our educational institutions espouse, we need to look at better ways to teach Chinese language, history and politics — without interference from Beijing.
As an interim step, it would be a healthy thing for as many people as possible to watch In the Name of Confucius to understand just how badly the name of the Chinese sage is being misused by the authorities in China and those in our universities who take their money.