University of Melbourne renegotiating Confucius Institute agreement
University of Melbourne in Australia has confirmed it is renegotiating its Confucius Institute contract with Hanban, the Chinese government authority tasked with promoting Chinese language and culture internationally.
In an email statement to U2B, a university spokesperson said the university is renegotiating a new agreement as the current one is due to expire soon.
“While these negotiations are taking place, we are not in a position to provide any details,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson was responding to queries on the scope of the negotiations, and whether due consideration would be given to allegations that the institutes were being used inappropriately to spread Chinese propaganda and influence.
According to a Tuesday report by Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), the University of Melbourne contract with Hanban was first signed in August 2009 and must be renewed every five years. The portal said the contract was renewed in 2014 following a mutual agreement between both parties.
Instead of renegotiating the terms, @unimelb should reconsider entirely having a Confucius Institute. These institutes are fundamentally incompatible with a robust defence of academic freedom. https://t.co/OvkDlo5HsZ
— Elaine Pearson (@PearsonElaine) August 5, 2019
Recent developments have cast an unwelcome spotlight on agreements between the Beijing-based Hanban and the 13 universities in Australia that currently host Confucius Institutes.
Reports last month by SMH and The Age revealed that four universities had signed agreements explicitly stating they must comply with Beijing’s demands concerning teaching at the facilities.
The agreements reportedly contained clauses stipulating they “must accept the assessment of the Headquarters on the teaching quality” at the centres.
The wording fuels concerns raised globally against Beijing’s soft power mission and its alleged use of learning facilities like the Confucius Institute to spread undue influence on campuses and beyond.
The Confucius Institutes, all 539 facilities in five continents, establish themselves as Chinese language and culture centres and are often set up in partnership with a local university and Hanban, which falls under the authority of China’s Ministry of Education.
According to Hanban, the institutes, “… have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition, they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world and are much welcomed across the globe.”
But critics view the institutes as platforms that arm China with unfettered powers to exert political influence and propaganda in countries around the world.
Earlier this year, the United States Department of Defence said it would no longer fund Chinese-language programmes at universities that host Confucius Institutes. This was the result of a ruling last year in which US Congress ended Pentagon support for the Chinese flagship programmes, unless the Defence Department grants a waiver.
In Australia, these concerns have ramped up federal scrutiny of the Confucius Institute partnerships with local affiliates.
In March, the Attorney-General’s Department said it was examining the arrangements to ensure their compliance with the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, introduced last December as a measure to crack down on foreign interference in Australia.
The scheme institutes registration obligations on all persons and entities that operate on behalf of foreign principals, for the purpose of granting the public and government decision-makers visibility on the “nature, level and extent” of foreign influence in the country.
However, it has been reported that none of the 14 Confucius Institutes currently operating in Australia have submitted themselves to the register.
Apart from the University of Melbourne, other Australian universities with Confucius Institutes include the University of Queensland, Victoria University, La Trobe University, Griffith University, Charles Darwin University, Queensland University of Technology, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, University of Sydney, University of Adelaide, RMIT, and University of Western Australia.
According to SMH, University of Queensland is also negotiating changes to its agreement which expired earlier this year. The portal’s report says the new version will ensure university autonomy in all activities concerning the courses and projects offered by the institute.