Confucius Institutes, the PRC, and all that

Last week there were screenings in Auckland and Wellington of Canadian journalist and filmmaker Doris Liu’s documentary “In the Name of Confucius” .  Each screening was followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker herself, who has been on a bit of a roadshow promoting the film (which is funded by the Canada Media Fund) and its message (which has now also been screened at the British Parliament and at various parliaments in Australia).

From the promotional material

Culture. Language. Power.  On average, China opens one Confucius Institute per week in partnership with school boards and academic institutions around the world, with a goal of opening 1000 by 2020.  Yet, a growing number of schools are also starting cut ties with the program, alarmed by concerns ranging from human rights violations, financial incentives and censored content to national security and espionage.

In the Name of Confucius is a one-hour documentary about the Chinese government’s multi-billion dollar Confucius Institute (CI) program and the growing global controversy at academic institutions around the world as scholars, parents and others question the program’s political influence and purpose.

The Confucius Institute (CI) programme began in 2004, and there are now three of them in New Zealand (made possible as part of the 2008 China-New Zealand “Free Trade” Agreement), one each at Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury universities.  Given the substantial amounts of money involved –  the universities get to extensively leverage their brand with PRC money –  and the sensitivities of the PRC authorities on all manner of things (try the Rockhampton fish story for example), it was to the credit of Victoria University that they allowed their facilities to be used for the Wellington screening, even with the strange disclaimer that “This external event does not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts and opinions of the university”.    Perhaps naively, I’d associated universities with the contest of ideas, evidence etc, rather than with any single view held by “the university”.

(Reflecting an official PRC perspective, the film featured a clip of the head of Hanban –  the PRC government agency responsible for the CI programme –  stating that the CIs meant that it was “like foreign universities work for us”.)

The documentary centres on two main Canadian stories.  The first was the defection of a Mandarin language assistant (the main strand of what CIs do), Sonia Zhao, whose defection and subsequent human rights complaint (based on the then formal PRC prohibition of anyone with Falun Gong connections being a Mandarin language assistant) contributed to the closure of the Confucius Institute at McMaster University in Ontario.   Zhao herself had been a Falun Gong practitioner who, on her telling, had been unaware of the prohibition until presented with her draft contract, and was then fearful of imprisonment or other punishment in China.    She recounted the instructions the assistants received that –  in Canadian government classrooms –  they should avoid issues like Taiwan and Tibet, change the subject if possible, and otherwise parrot the Party line.

The second story was around the battle, ultimately successful, to convince the Toronto public schools system (apparently the third largest in North America) to end its association with the Confucius Institute/Confucius classroom programme.  It featured rather gruesome footage of little Canadian kids singing a song, drawn from CI resources provided by the PRC authorities for Toronto schools, in praise of Chairman Mao “leading his people forward” (no mention presumably of the tens of millions of deaths ascribed directly to government choices?).

The section focused on the Toronto debate featured footage of vociferous protests outside the meetings (on both sides, mostly from the ethnic Chinese community, with those in favour of the CI programme apparently organised by other PRC front organisations), some pretty arrogant bureaucrats (including one who had clearly enjoyed being “wined and dined” –  his words –  by Beijing), and some dramatic footage of the impassioned debate at meetings of the school district board of trustees.    There were the competing perspectives: one Chinese immigrant tried to claim that Tibet’s status was really just like Quebec’s.  That sparked a feisty response from one trustee about the possibilities for independence referenda in Tibet, to which the response was ‘oh, we don’t need referenda, because we know no one wants independence”.    And, on the other side, other ethnic Chinese noted that for all the CI claims to promote Chinese culture, it was the Communist Party which had set out to destroy so much of Chinese culture.     At the end there was an overwhelming vote (20 for, 2 against) to end the Toronto school district’s association with the Confucius programme.

The documentary was primarily about the Confucius Institute programme.  But it was also –  particularly through the lens of the Sonia Zhao story –  about the brutal and systematic PRC persecution of the Falun Gong.    The filmmaker –  herself a Chinese immigrant to Canada only about 10 years ago – has some involvement with Falun Gong herself, and indicated that she has family members back in the PRC who are active practitioners. One could only admire her courage in speaking out, although wondering about the risks she might be exposing her family still in the PRC to.

Here is an extract from a pamphlet Falun Gong people were distributing in central Wellington last week

falun gong

Or you could read an Australian (ABC) article.

This is the sort of regime that we allow to put its people into our schools.

Falun Gong isn’t, to put it mildly, my cup of tea.  But that isn’t the point.   States shouldn’t get to compel, or proscribe, religious/spiritual practices in this day and age (cuius regio, eius religio was from hundreds of years ago) and, when they nonetheless still choose to do so, we should not be actively aligning ourselves with such regimes (one could add regimes like Saudi Arabia to such a list), let alone allowing them to put (ideological “sound”, politically safe) people in our schools.   The PRC has now removed the explicit prohibition on Falun Gong people from the websites describing these Mandarin language assistant roles, but it makes no practical difference, given that the practice of Falun Gong is prohibited in the PRC and the government actively persecutes (and in some cases, it appears, murders) practitioners.

As it happens, and to her credit, the director of Victoria University’s Confucius Institute attending the screening of “In the name of Confucius” in Wellington.  Rebecca Needham was, until recently, a fairly senior MFAT official, including former New Zealand Consul-General to Guangzhou.  As I noted recently, in the weird conflation of roles and interests that swirls around Wellington over the PRC relationship, even though her current job (directly on the payroll of Victoria University) involves implementing a programme largely funded by the PRC, she is still shown on the MFAT website as one of the group of public sector experts on China (the only non public servant on the list).

When it came to the Q&A session, Needham made a couple of points:

  • to the extent that events were portrayed accurately in the film, they bore no resemblance to the way the Confucius Institute at Victoria (or others in NZ) were run, and
  • that the Victoria Confucius Institute was completely transparent and non-political.

Since I had met her once before, and she had then volunteered a willingness to talk and answer questions, I emailed her and asked whether she could be specific about any differences in how the New Zealand CIs were run, and whether there were any prohibitions on Falun Gong teaching assistants.

She invited me to come and talk it over, and we met in her office yesterday. Despite her offer to talk, she was clearly a bit uneasy about talking to me, and so I offered to keep her remarks off-the-record, and simply use them as background to my own descriptions etc.  In the course of the discussion, Tony Browne – former New Zealand Ambassador to China, chair of the Confucius Institute and senior consultant (unpaid) to Hanban (the PRC agency behind Confucius Institutes –  dropped in.  I’ve also written previously about the multiple hats Browne wears.

To recap, the main focus of the Confucius Institute, despite its location in a university, and use of the university brand, has almost nothing to do with the traditional role of a university.  They neither teach undergraduates, nor conduct research.  It is mostly a programme of (at PRC government expense) putting native Chinese speakers (typically young graduates from good Chinese universities) into our schools, to support Chinese language (and related) programmes. (There are also “cultural” programmes that look as though they should be better done, if at all, directly through the PRC embassy, not with a local university imprimatur).   A different cohort of these young people come out each year, and they are based in various towns and cities (in Victoria’s case, the North Island up to and including the Bay of Plenty), working in local schools alongside New Zealand registered teachers.  Apparently, no textbooks or the like are provided by Hanban, the Confucius Institutes, or the Mandarin Language Assistants themselves (presumably reducing the likelihood of kids in our schools singing songs celebrating Chairman Mao).

Apparently the hope of Hanban has been to localise Chinese language teaching over time (presumably, in turn, reducing the substantial cost the PRC taxpayer –  in a much poorer country than NZ –  bears).  Even if that is the hope, it isn’t the situation at present, whether in New Zealand or in other countries where CIs are operated.

The recruitment process for the Mandarin language assistants who come out here involves the New Zealand Confucius Institute staff making the final decisions (sensibly enough –  they need people who will fit in, living in perhaps a small New Zealand provincial town for some time). But they make those decisions from a list provided to them by PRC universities.    We can be pretty sure that all of those people –  after all, coming to pursue an official government agenda just by their presence – will have well-vetted. No Falun Gong will have survived the vetting process, but nor will anyone calling for (say) independence for Tibet, free and open elections in the PRC itself, respect for Taiwanese democracy, or freedom of religion or freedom of expression.   That is just the way the PRC is, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.  New Zealand staff needn’t concern themselves with this sort of pre-vetting.

Now, of course, these are young graduates.  Some might be politically passionate, but probably most aren’t –  more concerned with seeing the world, shopping, the opposite sex, developing their English, or whatever, all the while adopting the only safe PRC position (keeping your head down, and your speech tightly constrained).  So I’m not suggesting that when these people come into our classrooms they are generally consciously actively propagating some PRC agenda or worldview to our kids.  But it doesn’t change the fact that they are approved representatives of a heinous regime, and they (and the Victoria staff) have chosen to be complicit with that regime, no matter how often they repeat the line that “we just do language and culture”.     Are they helping some New Zealand kids in the process?  Yes, no doubt.  (And having myself spent time growing up in Kawerau, I was half-pleased to see that kids in places like Kawerau and –  still poorer –  Murapara are getting support in their Chinese language learning.)

But it doesn’t make the system right.  I suggested to the director that it really wasn’t much different than if, say, a cohort of Hitler Youth (which pretty much everyone had to join, whether a zealot or not) had beeen coming to the UK in the mid-late 1930s each summer to teach German language and culture, at the expense of the Nazi regime.  There is nothing wrong with learning German, or Chinese, but the people who work on those programmes (from university vice-chancellors down) make themselves complict in the evil.

If we want to encourage Chinese language learning in New Zealand, how much better if we spent our own money on it?   That is what we do when we want to improve science or maths or English or economics teaching.   It is what self-respecting people do, not mendicants.  We don’t (that I’m aware of) have a government-facilitated programme to bring in native French or German or Spanish speakers for our schools, but if that were regarded as a worthwhile part of secondary education I’d have no particular objection. But spend our own money, recruit people directly ourselves, and recruit them from places (in the Chinese case, eg Taiwan, Singapore, or even semi-free Hong Kong) where we can reasonably confident that a foreign government won’t have prescreened for political suitability and safety.  Particularly not a foreign government like that of the PRC.   (And this is all the more so for courses for our public servants, of the sort the CI conducts.)

You can read the Victoria University Confucius Institute material for yourself: there is plenty of it on their website.   You can also see that the talk about it being “just” language and culture (and doesn’t “culture” encompass “the way we do things” –  the PRC not being a model for most New Zealanders), they are quite open about the political nature of what is going on.  The handbooks for schools might mostly be branded as “Victoria University” products (Vic has many institutes and schools) and perhaps that helps marketing and recruitment in the provinces.  The Annual Reports are a bit different.   We find photos of a Vice-Premier, of a visiting Communist Party secretary.  We read that a counsellor from the PRC Embassy sits on the board of the Confucius Institute, and that one of the CI staff is involved in programmes “to raise China literacy in the public sector”  (we ask the PRC government to help “educate” us on China?   And the Nazi Party to educate us on Germany in the 30s?)   In fact, in the 2017 Annual Report there is a celebratory photo of Xi Jinping on page 2 –  clearly not embarrassed that this tyrant, just taking power for life and further clamping down on any freedoms in the PRC –  launched the Victoria CI in 2010.

The PRC doesn’t have any doubts about the point of the Confucius Institute programme.  But you have to wonder why New Zealand universities, government departments, and decent individuals are so willing to allow themselves to be used by such a dreadful regime.  Language learning generally is a good cause, but ends aren’t all the matter. Means matter too.

The presence of Confucius Institutes clearly isn’t the biggest issue that should be worrying people in the supine, even slavish, way our authorities approach the PRC.  Rather more important is when, for example, the Leader of the Opposition (who as a minister signed us up for a “fusion of civilisations” with this dreadful regime) can claim, apparently with a straight face

He also said he continued to back National MP Jian Yang who was forced to defend himself after confirming that he had taught ‘spies’ in China.     “Before me being or becoming the leader, he has asked and answered quite decisively the questions around all of this … he is a highly valued member of parliament,” Mr Bridges said.

(This of a man hardly heard from in the English language media since the allegations surfaced)

or a Defence Minister who was reported the other day, at a function to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army 91st anniversary, that New Zealand was a “strategic partner” of the PRC.

If you want to update on what sort of regime it is that we allow to put its people in our schools, that we solicit foreign aid from, and have our universities celebrate, I recommend that new Der Spiegel piece on the open-air concentration camp that the Chinese province of Xinjiang has become.  Or an update on the organ transplant abuse situation, that someone sent to me a few days ago.  Perhaps you are inclined to look the other way, or just ignore this issue, as I was until quite recently.  If so, at least I suggest you check out the calibre of some of the people involved in leading the fight against this practice.  Yes, governments need to have relationships with the PRC (stiff formal ones ideally), but we shouldn’t be beggars, and we shouldn’t give our good name to voluntary association with such a regime.

10 thoughts on “Confucius Institutes, the PRC, and all that

  1. Hello Michael, This is great, good exposure. Can I get it posted to our HR documentary screenings NZ facebook page? Best wishes, Margo


  2. Firstly I must make it clear I agree with you. However its is hard for a government to be perfect – Australia is deporting Kiwis side-stepping Habeas Corpus, America has Guantanamo Bay, the UK detained IRA suspects without trial, NZ its Urewera police raids. If you use the defense that the majority of the people are happy with its government and have clearly had significant improvements in living standards then China does look fine. And there are many countries we find admirable that have difficulty accepting their past mistakes.

    The difference with China relates to the unique power of their communist party. It is easy to find Americans arguing about Trump (rather hard to avoid them) or POMs discussing Brexit politely over cucumber sandwiches, Australia doesn’t slap a ban on NZ tourists if Andrew Little criticises their actions, and Maori activists are fairly easy to find. It is the closing down of argument that is the problem with China; that and the rather obvious it is a big place. When NZ took a hard line with Fiji it didn’t seem to effect our economy.

    I remain committed to never voting National until Jian Yang MP admits that there are arguments to be had about Tibet, Falun Gong, Uighur repression, etc and gives us a substantive argument to support whatever his position is. At present it would appear that his stance on social issues in China is to echo their party line. He is entitled to represent the communist party of China but not to represent any New Zealand voter simultaneously.

    Maybe the best way of handling the Confucius Institutes in NZ is to give them enough rope to hang themself. Get these young graduates to debate Kiwi concerns about China. That would be best done with reliable facts and of course more mandarin speakers. as an immigrant from UK I’m happy to discuss Brexit and the UK’s involvement in Iraq, Libya, Syria (although I would have to do plenty of reading to make sense); so why wouldn’t a Chinese graduate be willing to discuss current activity in Xinjiang?


    • I think the other important difference is the sheer scale of the abuses, and the self-correcting nature of the system. I have no confidence in the NZ police (for example), but they were finally compelled to apologise for the over-reach in the Uruwera raids. All human institutions and societies will be flawed, always, but “what-aboutism” (not that I’m suggesting you are doing it) can lead people to trivialise the worst evils, because lesser evils are done by other people.


  3. I read an article about Cambodia where Chinese can buy residency and then land. They build hotels with Chinese workers who get into brawls with the locals. The same thing is going on here (to a degree). I wouldn’t mind betting money and sexual services are on offer to New Zealand officials and businessmen.


  4. Thanks again Michael. Victoria has an awful lot more to be concerned about than changing its name for geographically challenged foreign students. It has prostituted itself as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Hard to know how it can maintain any credibility as an academic institution these days.


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