GOLD COAST, Australia—The Tourism Confucius Institute of Griffith University held a free “reading community activity” at the Gold Coast’s Southport Library on Nov. 30 that was advertised as a seminar about Chinese culture.
However, people who attended could be forgiven for thinking it was an event by the Beijing-backed Confucius Institute on how China is rising in the world and why those who criticize Beijing are wrong.
The advertisement posted on Gold Coast City Council’s booking system indicated the event would be a presentation from a China academic introducing the “beautiful world of Chinese culture and history.” The ad did not say the presentation would cover the state of politics regarding China.
At the event, there was a Tourism Confucius Institute (TCI) pull-up banner at the front of the room, and TCI brochures on each seat. The event was also advertised on TCI’s Facebook page.
Confucius Institutes (CIs) are advertised by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as HanBan, as educational organizations to promote Chinese culture and language. However, western intelligence agencies have warned that the institutes are used as part of the Chinese regime’s apparatus to gain influence abroad.
CIs are funded by the CCP through HanBan and documented to be involved in organizing protests against topics the CCP considers to be a threat to the stability of its rule, according to a staff report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (pdf). The report also gave examples of the “soft power” influence of CIs that repeat Beijing’s lines on sensitive issues. For example, CIs will host speakers who parrot the CCP’s propaganda points about issues like Tibet and follow the CCP’s distortion of history such as blaming the United States for drawing China into the Korean War by bombing villages.
Emeritus Professor Colin Mackerras, a Sinologist and honorary director of TCI, gave an 80-minute presentation of which only 15 minutes was devoted to Chinese language and culture. Mackerras spent much of the remaining time speaking about geopolitics.
He talked about the rise of China and political affairs surrounding China, which included his views on what he called U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent “extremely hostile” speech about China as well as his criticism of then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s strong words on China’s attempt to influence Australian politics. He also touched on which political party he thought was going to win Australia’s next federal election and how they have been “more positive” towards China.
“China’s rise is important to the world and should be welcome to Australia,” he told the audience, as a security guard stood next to the meeting room door.
US Views on China Relations Debated
Mackerras criticized Pence’s speech on China-U.S. relations that was given at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. on Oct. 4. During his speech, Pence denounced Beijing’s “whole-of-government” approach in undermining and sabotaging the United States.
Pence said the CCP had interfered in U.S. politics, academia, and domestic and foreign policy, among other things.
“As we speak, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States,” Pence said.
Mackerras described Pence’s remarks as “extremely hostile,” especially towards the CCP’s cyberspace crimes, “derelict” trade practices, and human rights abuse in Tibet. “It seems to signal a new cold war with China,” he said.
Mackerras warned the Australian government should not let the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty influence its decision on whether to follow the China policy set by the United States. He argued that Australia should not “annoy the Chinese politically” because China is Australia’s biggest trading partner.
“We should be putting more weight on good relations with China and less on towing the American line,” he said.
Australian Politics Discussed at Length
In his speech, Mackerras predicted the ruling center-right Coalition government will lose the 2019 Australian general election, adding that a left-leaning Labor Party government will be more sympathetic to socialist China. He also commented on how the federal Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten and shadow Labor foreign affairs minister Penny Wong are friendlier towards China.
“Scott Morrison won’t be prime minister for very long,” he said. “And just say that Shorten gets in the next year, which I think is highly likely, [Shorten and Wong] have been much more positive about China than the present government.”
“I think it’s going to improve,” he added about his view of Australia-China relations.
Mackerras also attacked Australia’s former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, for what he described to be worsening relations between China and Australia, especially when Turnbull supported the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in June 2018. Mirroring similar laws in the United States, the scheme broadens the definition of espionage and requires people working for foreign countries to register as foreign agents or face criminal prosecution if found to be meddling in national affairs.
Turnbull said in December 2017 the new laws were necessary to fight the “rapidly escalating” threat of foreign interference and the “disturbing reports” that the CCP had interfered with the nation’s media coverage, universities, and the decisions of Australia’s elected representatives.
Criticism of the Communist Regime Called ‘Sinophobia’
Mackerras dismissed some of the in-depth reports on CCP infiltration in Australia’s political and education system—including the ABC’s “Four Corners” segment Power and Influence and Charles Sturt University ethics professor Clive Hamilton’s book “Silent Invasion.” Both presented detailed research on the operations of the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD is an organization mandated with expanding CCP’s control of overseas Chinese communities and gaining influence abroad.
Mackerras labeled parts of “Power and Influence” and “Silent Invasion” as Sinophobic “fear” or “hatred” of China that would hurt Chinese student numbers. China is Australia’s largest source of international students with more than 540,000 enrolments at universities, private colleges, English language courses, and schools, according to Australia’s Department of Education.
“[Chinese student numbers] are beginning to reduce because the Chinese government does not think this is very suitable if they are just going to be treated like that,” he said. “I don’t know [if] there are that many people in the Chinese community who side with Clive Hamilton. I have seen a number of reviews, most of which are quite hostile to the book.”
In an emailed statement to The Epoch Times, Hamilton said the CCP brands all criticisms of the communist party as “anti-China” or “Sinophobic.”
“‘Silent Invasion’ was launched in Sydney by 100 or more Chinese-Australians packed into a room in Parliament House. A Chinese edition of Silent Invasion will soon be published in Taiwan,” Hamilton said. “It is sad to see an eminent China scholar like Professor Mackerras fall for the CCP’s trick.”
Watch: Prof. Clive Hamilton explains how the Chinese Communist Party influences milions through propaganda
Educational Content Questioned for Bias
There have been concerns from the wider community that CIs could be silencing academic criticism of the CCP’s leadership.
When asked how freely teachers from China can speak about human rights, Mackerras ruled out the possibility of CI Chinese teachers discussing the topic in class.
“I doubt they would talk about human rights … most of the Chinese who belong to that Confucius Institute probably won’t,” he said.
CI teaching material is being scrutinized across the state border in New South Wales after the state government received complaints that it only presents a pro-CCP perspective.
China’s Hiring Criteria Gags Teachers on Australian Soil
Chinese teachers could be refraining from speaking in Australia about human rights issues like the persecution of Falun Gong or Tibetans, because HanBan’s criteria for joining the Overseas Volunteer Chinese Teacher Program states teachers must have no record of participation in Falun Gong and other organizations banned in Mainland China.
Mackerras confirmed he was aware of HanBan’s selection criteria that requires TCI teachers to sign contracts before arriving in Australia promising not to participate in Falun Gong or any CCP banned organizations.
“Is that so terrible? … of course, you could argue that it should not be illegal,” he said just before a teacher from TCI loudly cleared her throat.
Mackerras referred to the example of Chinese-born Sonia Zhao who taught at McMaster University’s Confucius Institute in Canada. Zhao resigned in 2011 since the Chinese regime would not allow her to continue practising Falun Gong—a spiritual practice of mind and body banned and severely persecuted by the CCP in Mainland China since 1999.
After lengthy litigation in Canada over Zhao’s religious freedom and her complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that McMaster was “giving legitimization to discrimination,” the university decided to shut down its CI because the CI would not change its requirement for teachers to declare they do not practice Falun Gong.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Griffith University said in Australia it is unlawful to discriminate against applicants, and the university doesn’t engage in such a practice.
“Discrimination in recruitment practices is quite rightly illegal under Australian law,” said Griffith Vice President Global Professor Sarah Todd.