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Fearing ‘Foreign Influence’, Australia Ends Chinese Language Program

The Institutes are found across the world, but New South Wales has announced it will cut programs linked to the institute in public schools.The Institutes are found across the world, but New South Wales has announced it will cut programs linked to the institute in public schools.
A girl writes Chinese characters at a contest for students at the Vladivostok, Russia branch of Confucious Institute. The Institutes are found across the world, but New South Wales has announced it will cut programs linked to the institute in public schools. Yuri Smityuk—TASS via Getty Images

Australian state New South Wales is cutting its public school system’s ties to a China-funded Mandarin language program over fears of “inappropriate foreign influence.”

The state’s department of education announced Thursday that the Confucius Institute program will be axed from the 13 schools in which it currently operates. The Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

New South Wales is Australia’s most populous state, and its capital is Sydney. It ran the language program in collaboration with Hanban, the Chinese government agency that oversees Confucius Institutes. Hanban provided $150,000 in funding for the program, plus $10,000 per classroom.

While Hanban funds Confucius Institutes across the world—totaling at least 500—New South Wales remains the only government agency in any country to have directly hosted one. Usually, universities host the institutes, not states. At least 13 universities in Australia have Confucius Institutes, including the University of Sydney.

The U.S. has the highest number of institutes—followed by the U.K. and Australia—with an estimated 90 Confucius Institutes across the country. The majority are in colleges and universities. The number used to be higher but several schools closed their institutes earlier this year after a Feb. 2019 Senate report slammed the program as a funnel for Chinese propaganda that provides funding which “comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom.”

While the New South Wales review did not find proof of “actual political influence,” it described finding “a number of specific factors that could give rise to the perception that the Confucius Institute is or could be facilitating inappropriate foreign influence.”

The state’s decision to shut down the program is the latest indication of rising concerns in Australia over Chinese government influence in the country, from its politicians to its  campuses.

Australia’s political relationship to the Asian superpower is complicated by its economic one: China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and has boosted its economy for decades.

“No country has benefited as clearly from its relationship with China as Australia,” John Garnaut, an Australian government consultant and former China-based journalist, wrote in 2018. “It is hard to think of any two economies in the world that are more complementary.”

The countries are also culturally linked, with 1.2 million Australian citizens of Chinese descent. But amid concerns that paranoia around Chinese Communist Party infiltration will generate a racist backlash against those citizens, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said on Friday that Australia is in danger of entering a "national hysteria" about Chinese influence.

Rudd said that Chinese Australians have approached him "in the middle of the street and [said] they are copping abuse [...] we have to be very careful about how we manage these debates."

The New South Wales education minister said the state will replace its public schools' Confucius Institute programs with state-run Mandarin language programs.

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