The Chinese sage Confucius has this to say about trust: “I used to take on trust a man’s deeds after having listened to his words. Now having listened to a man’s words I go on to observe his deeds”.
Australia, it seems, is unhappy with China’s deeds. This month it has taken two steps to limit what it sees as Chinese interference in its education system.
The first was a decision by the government of New South Wales to end the Confucius Classroom programme – this saw Beijing-funded teachers instruct in Chinese language and culture at 13 of the state’s public schools.
“Having foreign government appointees based in a government department is one thing. Having appointees of a one-party state that exercises censorship in its own country working in a government department in a democratic system is another,” a review by the state board of education concluded.
This week Beijing also formally charged the Australian writer and academic Yang Hejun with spying, seven months after being detained at Guangzhou Airport.
There are over 180,000 mainland students enrolled in Australian universities – accounting for roughly 10% of the country’s student population.
In June the Australian National University in Canberra reported a massive data hack. An Australian intelligence official pointed the finger at China for the attack – the second in under year. “The intelligence community fears the data will be used to target promising young students in the hope they can be used as informants as they move through their careers, notably in government departments and even intelligence agencies,” the Sydney Morning Herald said.
Fear that China’s ruling Party is trying to gain influence on foreign campuses has been growing in recent years as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, or CSSA’s, have become increasing active in support of issues championed by Beijing.
This week Australia also announced it is setting up a government task force to protect sensitive research as well as freedom of speech in universities. The education minister Dan Tehan said the taskforce was needed to “protect against deception, undue influence, unauthorised disclosure or disruption to our research, intellectual property and research community”.
Sino-Australian relations have been on the decline for several years. In 2017 an opposition labour MP Sam Dastyari was forced to resign after being accused of accepting financial favours from Chinese companies in exchange for voicing pro-China views on the South China Sea. His case triggered a new law that banned political donations from overseas.
Since December organisations and individuals who are operating in Australia on behalf of a foreign government or a foreign political organisation have had to register under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
And last month Attorney General Christian Porter reminded universities to ensure that international partnerships, including those with Confucius Institutes, complied with Australian law, and that the partners could be required to register.
At that point, none of the Confucius Institutes partnering with 13 Australian universities had done so, ABC News reported.
China runs 548 Confucius Institutes and 1,193 Confucius classrooms in 154 countries. The various programmes reach 1.87 million students worldwide, the institute’s website says. The first Confucius Institute was opened in South Korea in 2004 but in the past nine years 25 universities have closed their institutes down.
China’s foreign ministry called New South Wales’ decision to shut the Confucius Classroom programme “worrying” and said Australia shouldn’t “politicise normal exchange programmes”.
The New South Wales government said it would replace the China financed programme with domestically funded Chinese language classes.
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