Can Confucius Institutes survive on Australian university campuses?

Confucius Institutes have always been controversial because of their links to the Chinese government and their physical location on university campuses. Academics, the media and the general public have raised concerns that they could restrict academic freedom, spread propaganda and allow the Chinese government to influence universities. In the context of increasing apprehension about China in general, and the recent deterioration in Australia-China relations in particular, Confucius Institutes will likely come under heavy scrutiny with the introduction of the Australian government’s foreign relations bill, which extends to the investigation into foreign interference in the university sector. The Australian government should use this as an opportunity to decide whether, and on what terms, Confucius Institutes are acceptable, while universities should use it as an opportunity to reflect on the purpose and operation of Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

Confucius Institutes have been welcomed by Australian universities who perceive them as a means of enhancing Chinese language and culture education and facilitating connections to China. Confucius Classrooms, their equivalents in primary and secondary schools, have likewise been welcomed by schools wishing to establish or enhance Chinese language and culture programs. Since Australia’s first Confucius Institute opened at the University of Western Australia in 2005, a total of 14 Confucius Institutes and 67 Confucius Classrooms have been established. This gave Australia the third highest number of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in the world for a single country after the United States and the United Kingdom.

The concerns voiced by academics, journalists and members of the public resulted in a number of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms closing in North America and Europe. Such concerns also existed in Australia but did not result in any Confucius Institutes or Classrooms closing. Universities, state and federal governments appeared sanguine about their presence. A turning point came in 2018 when the New South Wales government decided to review, and eventually close, the Confucius Institute located in the state’s Department of Education and the Confucius Classrooms attached to it. Since then, tensions in the Australia-China relationship have further heightened suspicion of the Chinese government’s intentions. Confucius Institutes will most likely be targeted in the federal government’s investigation into foreign interference at universities currently underway.

How can the Australian government and universities deal with Confucius Institutes?

Any response should be based on the premise that Chinese language and culture education are in the interests of the Australian government and its citizens. The resources available through Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms have been used to compensate for insufficient and inconsistent government funding for Chinese language and culture education in universities and schools. If the government determines Confucius Institutes are no longer acceptable, it could provide funds itself. When the New South Wales government closed the state’s Confucius Classrooms, it provided $1.2 million to ensure students could continue learning the Chinese language. The federal government would need to do this on a national level, and this would require it to make a significant and long-term commitment to fund Chinese language and culture education.

If the Australian government is unwilling to do this, it should instead propose changes to Confucius Institutes which would make them acceptable, and communicate these to China. Most obviously, Confucius Institutes would need to be separated from the Chinese government. It is worth noting that in June, the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban) changed its name to the Ministry of Education Centre for Language Exchange and Cooperation (教育部中外语言交流合作中心) and relinquished responsibility for Confucius Institutes. A new entity, called the Chinese International Education Foundation (中国国际中文教育基金会), is now in charge of the development and funding of Confucius Institutes. The Chinese International Education Foundation is described as a non-governmental organisation made up of universities and companies. Although it remains to be seen whether this amounts to a true separation between Confucius Institutes and the government in Beijing, this is a step in the right direction and demonstrates China is willing to make changes.

Another requirement for Confucius Institutes would be that they are located off-campus. This is in line with how other language and culture promotion bodies, such as the Alliance française, Cervantes Institute and Dante Institute, operate. The Confucius Institutes would still be able to conduct language courses and cultural activities aimed at the general public. They would also still be able to conduct the various extracurricular activities which benefit university students, such as conversation groups, language competitions and study trips to China.

In addition, Confucius Institutes should be reviewed on a regular basis. Each review should focus on the content of their courses and cultural activities, contractual arrangements and budgets, and seek input from students, academics and the public. This information should also be made freely and easily accessible to ensure transparency regarding all aspects of the Confucius Institutes in Australia.

For universities, there are practical and organisational issues surrounding Confucius Institutes including contractual obligations, hiring practices and curriculum content, as well as the relationship between Confucius Institutes and existing Chinese language and studies programs in some universities. Some universities seemingly entered into agreements to establish Confucius Institutes without properly considering these issues or how the Confucius Institutes would fit into the university.

If the government is willing to allow Confucius Institutes to continue, universities will need to address such issues if they want to keep their Confucius Institutes. Renegotiating contracts to ensure the university has sole control of Confucius Institute programming and operation is a necessary step, and some universities have done this. Another step is to clearly demarcate the role of the Confucius Institute and separate it entirely from university teaching and research in Chinese language and Chinese studies. This could be achieved through Confucius Institutes specialising in a particular area or theme. The Tourism Confucius Institute at Griffith University is one example. It teaches Chinese language and culture for tourism purposes and states on its website that it plays no part in the teaching or development of undergraduate or postgraduate courses at the university and does not commission research.

It is difficult to see how Confucius Institutes can continue unchanged in the current circumstances. The task ahead of the Australian government and universities is to work out exactly what role Confucius Institutes should play in the country’s Chinese language and culture education.