Thirteen Australian universities with Confucius Institutes tied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are under increasing pressure to register with the federal government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS).
The Confucius Institutes (CIs) are touted as a means of cultural exchange, however, CI’s have been under increasing scrutiny for their potential as a trojan horse for the CCP’s soft power propaganda push in the west.
Liberal Senator James Paterson said in The Daily Telegraph on May 9, “Any organisation funded by the overseas propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party should at an absolute bare minimum be on the foreign influence register, and it is of great concern they have thus far failed to comply.”
Continuing his commentary on Facebook, Paterson wrote on May 9 that he was deeply concerned by the university’s refusal to register with the scheme given they have been banned in Sweden and are being closed at some campuses in the United States.
Created and implemented in 2018, the FITS provides Australia with visibility on the “nature, level, and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and politics.”
Overseen by the Attorney-General’s department, FITS initially required organisations in Australia to register if they were lawfully acting on behalf of a foreign government or entity to complete activities for political influence.
Included in those activities (pdf) are political or parliamentary lobbying, communication activities—including publishing or disseminating information that could gain political influence—or the distribution of funds for political influence.
However, Attorney-General Christian Porter signalled that FITS would be seeing some changes in the future.
Speaking on 6PR with Gareth Parker on March 4, the attorney-general said that this year the federal government would be “looking at people and organisations where we might have had a reasonable expectation that they would register and starting to pursue answers to questions as to why they haven’t.”
Continuing Porter noted: “I’ve made some pretty substantial changes to the team and the way they operate and the way that they develop their briefs around who it is that they should be inquiring of as to why they haven’t registered.”
The Sydney Morning Herald on March 7 reported that the Attorney-General had created a specific team to target Chinese government-funded language and culture institutes operating at Australian universities.
According to the newspaper, the new unit will focus on groups seeking to harm Australia’s critical infrastructure and look into community groups with ties to Beijing’s propaganda departments.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Porter said that universities need to be aware of who it is “that is seeking to influence their decision-making, their structure, their expenditure, their outcomes.”
Universities need to be mindful of “about who those people are working on behalf of,” Porter said.
Currently, the FITS transparency registrar has only two academic organisations listed as being engaged by the CCP for lobbying and communication activities. The Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australian Academy of Science have both been engaged by the Chinese regime for political lobbying and communication activities.
Australia currently has Confucius Institutes at the Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, and the University of Sydney.
Charles Darwin University operates one in the Northern Territory, and there are institutes at the University of Adelaide, Victoria University, La Trobe University, RMIT, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Western Australia.