Australian Confucius Classrooms under question as contract revealed

Students learning to perform a tea ceremony at a Confucius kindergarten in Wuhan, China. Source: AFP / Getty Images

(SBS NEWS By Kelsey Munro, June 8,2018)

“The Chinese government-sponsored program offers Mandarin lessons around the world, but the NSW government and a new film have raised questions about a darker side to Confucius Institutes.”

The NSW government committed to respect Chinese “cultural customs” and abide by “Chinese laws and regulations” when it established its Confucius Classrooms program in a joint venture with the Chinese government, even though the program was run in NSW public schools, documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal.

SBS News has obtained documents including correspondence and the original contract signed by the NSW Department of Education and China’s Hanban agency to establish Confucius Classrooms in NSW in 2011 under the then Labor government.

The revelation comes as a documentary questioning the influence of Confucius Institutes premiered in Australia on Thursday.

The NSW Coalition government announced in May that it is reviewing its Confucius Classrooms program amid concerns over inappropriate foreign government influence.

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Intercultural awareness or propaganda?

The Chinese Language Teachers Association of NSW, which represents over 160 Mandarin teachers, has said there is no evidence of “political content” in the classes, that the curriculum was developed by the NSW Board of Studies, and locally qualified teachers, not the assistants, do all the teaching in NSW schools.

But a new film has fuelled further questions about the institutes.

Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Doris Liu’s documentary ‘In the Name of Confucius’ documents the Toronto School Board’s acrimonious battle over the Confucius Classrooms program. The board voted in 2014 to oust the program after a debate that split the local Chinese community.

Ms Liu, speaking via video link from the UK, told an audience at NSW parliament on Thursday: “You have to think about what strings are attached, what kind of costs are coming with the free Chinese education provided by Confucius Institutes.

“Do you really want to sacrifice your academic freedom, human rights and fundamental values to this free education opportunity?”

The film also follows the experience of Sonia Zhao, a Chinese Falun Gong practitioner who came to Canada as a Confucius Institute Mandarin teacher but later sought asylum.

Falun Gong, a modern spiritual discipline, is banned in China.

Confucius Institute teacher contracts in Canada had stipulated that no Falun Gong practitioners would be allowed to work for the institutes and Ms Zhao successfully challenged the contract over discrimination in Canada’s human rights commission. The university, McMaster University, later closed its Confucius Institute, becoming one of the first to do so.

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