Confucius Institutes, the PRC, and NZ authorities

Some commenters here are, at times, a bit critical of the New Zealand media for not being more active in pursuing questions around the New Zealand government and its supine attitude to the People’s Republic of China (Party and government), and its penetration of New Zealand.  I’m less willing to criticise –  it was, after all, the media that broke the Jian Yang story and pursued it for a time, only yesterday Newsroom had a story about MBIE’s continued use of surveillance equipment supplied by a Chinese government-owned company against which there has been a substantial pushback in the US and Australia, and the Herald’s Matt Nippert has drawn attention to his longstanding request for an interview with the Prime Minister on these issues.  No doubt more could be done –  including, for example, hard questions of the Prime Minister in her press conferences – but resources are limited, the traditional media is in decline, and by the standards of our business and political leaders, and even much of academe, the media are veritable paragons of virtue in this area.

Stuff’s journalist Harrison Christian has also done a couple of interesting and useful articles in recent months.    There was this article about PRC Embassy sponsored rent-a-mobs harrassing peaceful Falun Gong exiles and protestors in New Zealand, and the more general attempts by the PRC to exert control over ethnic Chinese in New Zealand and Australia.  In that article Christian even managed to get an exceptionally-rare comment –  even if not much more than a no-comment –  from former PLA intelligence official, Communist Party member, and National MP Jian Yang.    As a reminder of the nature of the regime, there was this early on in the article.

It was the end of Daisy Lee’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party: a black and white photograph her partner had kept hidden for years.

In their apartment in the northern city of Qingdao, Lee was talking to her husband about the Tiananmen Square protests. In 1989, troops with tanks and machine guns opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in the Beijing square, killing at least several hundred people; perhaps as many as 10,000.

Steve Ma had been a student in Beijing at the time, and Lee was scolding him for it.

“You students in Beijing did crazy things,” she said. “You smashed cars, set them on fire, made trouble and were violent towards the Beijing people!”

In response, Ma showed his wife an old photo taken with a miniature camera by one of his roommates at university. The picture was little more than an inch wide, but Lee could still make out the blood on Tiananmen Square, and a young person’s severed head.

The 1989 incident has always been a highly censored political topic. But Ma had kept that photo, if only for himself; a grim reminder of the day many of his classmates lost their lives.

“He’d been hiding it even though we’d known each other for several years,” says Lee. “The fear of Government was such that he couldn’t even trust me, his wife.”

I found it exceptionally moving, perhaps partly because I’ve come to know Daisy –  who now lives in Auckland – a little over the last year.

Do such articles make a difference?   Even if it is only person by person, raising consciousness, I suspect they do.  Just after that article appeared, with its photos of the silent protestors outside the PRC consulate, I happened to be in Auckland for a meeting nearby.  With a bit of time to spare before the meeting I walked up the road to briefly say thanks to the protestors for their efforts and wish them all the best.

Harrison Christian has another substantial article out today, this time on the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes in New Zealand, located as part of Auckland, Victoria, and Canterbury universities.  I’ve written about these institutes previously (recently here, but also here)  –  seeing them partly as PRC subsidies to university marketing budgets –  and I’m among those quoted in the Stuff article.

There are quotes from China experts

Duncan Campbell, adjunct teaching fellow at Victoria University’s School of Language and Cultures, said “huge amounts of money” were flooding in for Confucius Institutes, “whereas the university should be putting that or more into the proper study of China”.

“Six hundred-odd thousand into a university system that is strapped for cash is inappropriate,” Campbell said.

He said it amounted to “outsourcing” our understanding of China to the Chinese Communist Party.

All countries were engaged in extending their “soft power” offshore to some degree, Campbell said, but no country had an equivalent programme to CIs, which were embedded in their host universities.

“Everyone does it, but it is understood to be that – L’Alliance Française, the Goethe Institute – it’s removed, separate and autonomous. It doesn’t interfere within the framework of an existing academic institution.

“The issues with China and CIs is that we are dealing with a party state. We’re not actually dealing with a nation state.”

Campbell said he was concerned about “vast taboo areas” within the CI programme: topics politically sensitive to Beijing. Under president Xi Jinping, China had entered a new era of political censorship.

including Anne-Marie Brady

As public funds were also given to CIs, New Zealand was effectively assisting China in furthering its offshore agenda, Brady said.

“The New Zealand Government is subsidising the promotion of China’s foreign policy agenda through the Confucius Institutes,” Brady said.

“New Zealand needs to develop better China knowledge and language skills, but we should do so through New Zealand-based programmes which are free of the censorship constraints that come from Chinese-government funded programmes.”

Brady added that staff employed by CIs may not be followers of Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhism, or pro-Taiwan independence – movements seen as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party.

The constitution for all CIs states they shall not contravene the laws and regulations of China, where movements like Falun Gong are banned.

The article also draws attention to seminars sponsored by the Confucius Institutes which –  perhaps unlike straight language teaching –  are more explicitly about advancing Chinese government agendas, under the logo of a New Zealand university.    There was one in Auckland on the Belt and Road Initiative, and another in Wellington last year at Victoria University to mark 45 years of diplomatic ties with the PRC, at which not a single sceptical or critical voice was heard.

My comments were as follows

Economist and commentator on NZ-China links, Michael Reddell, said he believed the bulk of the institutes’ work was genuinely teaching language in our schools, but “one could, and should, challenge whether the New Zealand Government should be taking foreign aid from a middle-income country”.

Reddell was also concerned about the “overly close connections between the Confucius Institutes, the foreign policy establishment and other university work”.

For example, the chair of Victoria University’s Confucius Institute, Tony Browne, is also the chair of that university’s New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre (CCRC).

Stuff understands Browne’s dual roles have caused tensions within the leadership of the research centre since it was established.

“I don’t suppose [Browne] actively suppresses any negative research on China, but his presence is likely to condition the sorts of people who get appointed to such roles, for example the director of the CCRC,” said Reddell.

Campbell described Browne’s dual roles as an “impossible situation”.

“It is hard to understand how it works. Certainly I don’t think it can be justified,” he said.

And from the fuller comments I provided the journalist

I’m probably more concerned about the overly close connections between the CIs, the foreign policy establishment and other university work.  Thus, as I’ve highlighted Tony Browne (former NZ Ambassador to the PRC) is both chair of the Vic CI, a senior advisor to Hanban, chair of the Contemporary China Reseearch Centre, and programme co-director for the Aus-NZ School of Govt annual training programme for Chinese Communist Party rising officials.  I don’t suppose he actively suppresses any negative research on China, but his presence is likely to condition the sorts of people who get appointed to such roles (eg director of the CCRC).   Rebecca Needham, ex MFAT, is both director of the CI and still on MFAT’s list of public sector China experts.  The CIs are involved in running courses for public servants (again, mostly language) and the CCRC (Browne-chaired) helps run the public sector China courses.

Harrison Christian went to the Minister of Education for comment.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said it wasn’t his role to instruct universities on whether they establish or fund particular teaching and research centres.

“The autonomy of New Zealand’s universities is a prized, and internationally respected, feature of our education system,” Hipkins said.

Nothing seems to be a matter for the Minister of Education, in publicly-funded universities.  He was all-but silent recently on the Massey Vice-Chancellor and her refusal to accommodate speech she disagreed with.

I don’t suppose anyone thinks the government should be able to compel public universities to close Confucius Institutes, but that alone doesn’t absolve the Minister –  or his government colleages, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs –  from having a view on the activities of (heinous) foreign governments in our schools and universities, and whether such activities are appropriate.  In other countries, after all, there has been some measure of a re-think, and some Confucius Institutes have been closed.

Harrison Christian also got Tony Browne on record

However, Browne said he did not believe his roles were a potential conflict. His position as chair of the CCRC was a “management job, not a policy job”, he said.

“There’s a very fundamental and longstanding principle of academic freedom – that academics determine their areas of research.

“I don’t work for China. I’m not paid a cent by China.”

Browne pointed to an August report from the CCRC that presented a critical assessment of the potential benefits of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for New Zealand.

“My whole life has been guided by the promotion of New Zealand’s interests, not China’s interests.”

Which is fine as far as it goes but:

  • “management” and governance includes the resourcing and staffing issues.   With Browne in the chair, it seems highly unlikely that anyone very openly sceptical of the PRC would end up in the director’s role,
  • his role as senior adviser to Hanban –  the Chinese government agency that funds the Confucius Institutes, and recruits (selectively, for political and religious reliability) the Mandarin language assistants (whom Beijing provides, on top of the cash contributions in Christian’s article) – is unpaid, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t “working for China” in that role, which provides access, trips to the PRC, and benefits which enhance his other activities,
  • in a sense, much of the issue is captured by that last sentence.  I’m sure it is an accurate description of how he sees things: that apparent very close alignment (in his view) of the interests of the PRC and the interests of New Zealand, in a way that means he never ever says anything critical about the PRC, one of the most evil regimes on the planet today.  It may be no different for Jian Yang.

It is worth recalling that these aren’t Tony Browne’s only involvements.  From an earlier post

Tony Browne, the former New Zealand Ambassador to Beijing, must be a busy man.   I remembered that I had met him once.   Among his many hats is that he is co-director of the China Advanced Leadership Programme, run by the Australia-New Zealand School of Government (itself a partnership involving various Australian universities and Victoria University).

The China Advanced Leadership Program (CALP) is an annual three-week program for Chinese officials, delivered in Australia and New Zealand. The aim of the program is to develop productive relationships between high level public officials of Australia, New Zealand and China.  The program has been operational since 2011 and is delivered across multiple Australian and New Zealand cities.  The program is made possible due to ANZSOG’s relationship with the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party.   

It must be a quite a revenue-generator for the universities concerned.

Who attends

Who are our participants?

Senior and emerging Chinese public officials from central and provincial governments – Up 25 senior officials in China are carefully selected by ANZSOG’s program partner, the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The Organization Department occupies a unique role in the hierarchy of the Chinese government – it oversees appointments of all key positions within the administration. Previous delegations have included Vice-Ministers from the Central Government, Party Secretaries, City Mayors, and Directors-General.

All, quite explicitly, CCP members.

You might suppose that being a partnership between numerous Australian universities and Victoria University, ANZSOG wasn’t of much moment in New Zealand.  In fact, the state and national governments are members.  And of the Board, three are New Zealanders –  in the chair is Peter Hughes, the current State Services Commissioner.  And what of ANZSOG’s ties with the PRC?  It isn’t just a commercial relationship involved in running that course.    Instead, ANZSOG lists as “affiliate partners” a small number of agencies including

Affiliate partners

It is all terribly cosy.  The presence of the Chinese Communist Party speaks for itself.  But CELAP describes itself as

China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP), a Shanghai-based national institution, is funded by the central government and supervised by Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee.

Which brings me to a more general point.    Much as I disapprove of the Confucius Institutes, the (much) bigger issue is the approach of successful New Zealand governments and their bureaucracies.  Here is another quote from the comments I gave to Harrison Christian

But, take the CIs out of the picture completely and I doubt anything would be very much different.  The official cast of mind –  don’t ever say anything to rock the boat –  doesn’t arise from the CIs but from a hard-headed (probably misguided and amoral) assessment of NZ interests by NZ politicians and officials.   You note the OBOR seminar the Akld CI was involved in.  Another example, from the Vic CI, is this   at which no remotely sceptical voice was on the programme.  But if it hadn’t been the CI hosting the workshop, the CCRC –  or the university politics dept –  might have done so itself, and it isn’t clear that the format would have been much different.  [MFAT itself –  represented with MBIE and NZTE on the board –  may have been involved in blocking] awkward appointments to the CCRC director role.  But again, it isn’t China doing that, but NZers acting in their (misguided in my view) assessment of NZ best interests –  given the heavy handed approach China takes at times.

It was, after all, the NZ govt which willingly and enthusiastically signed up to the OBOR MOU last year. [“fusion of civilisations” and all that].
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the extent of PRC involvement in New Zealand is perhaps what you’d expect when an evil regime finds successive local governments scared of their own shadow, in the thrall of particular business interests (and the post-politics opportunities for them and their colleagues) and all too ready to turn over and let the PRC tickle their tummy.
Confucius Institutes are an issue, and it is good that Harrison Christian is giving the issues and risks wider public coverage.  But they aren’t the main event.   That is about attitudes, self-respect, integrity, values (and the lack of them) among our elected and bureaucratic “elite”.   Active mindsets and choices of New Zealand leaders.
(On my long list of possible things to write about had been this recent article from the Australia New Zealand School of Government, chaired by our own most senior public servant, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes.   It is about an education/”indoctrination” programme for senior Australian and New Zealand public servants in China.     Perhaps the worst of it is that way it normalises the PRC regime

The group also had discussions with Chinese officials about reforms to the education system aimed at building problem-solving capabilities and improving student welfare and school/life balance.

Participants said that the CRP had given them a better understanding of Chinese thinking and would enable them to engage better with Chinese businesses. They also gained a sense of the tension in China “between government’s role as a controller, and its reliance on social capital and community spirit to implement effective programs”.

Just another bunch of well-intentioned public servants on both sides.   Probably the rotations of the PRC counterparts through Xinjiang were carefully avoided, as trips to 1938 Berlin might have stepped around the local unpleasantness of Kristallnacht.

The CRP was initiated by ANZSOG in conjunction with the Organisation Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

The Organisation Department occupies a unique role in the hierarchy of the Chinese government – it oversees appointments of all key positions within the administration.

The CRP – the first and only initiative of its kind undertaken by the Chinese Government – and works in conjunction with the reciprocal Chinese Advanced Leadership Program, which sees senior Chinese officials visit Australia and New Zealand.

The special relationship of the our public service hierarchy with China’s Communist Party……   It should defy belief, but sadly it is all too real.  All part of the same (successful) effort by the PRC to neutralise the New Zealand government (in particular) and to relativise the perspectives of the officials who advise them. )