Thursday, February 2, 2017

Behind Confucius Classrooms: the Chinese government agency teaching NSW school students

Behind Confucius Classrooms: the Chinese government 

agency teaching NSW school students

NSW public schools are being paid at least $10,000 a year by a Chinese government body to offer its Chinese language and culture courses, and some  schools make it compulsory to attend. 
Despite concerns over the appropriateness of outsourcing public school lesson time to a foreign government body, the state government expanded the program - known as Confucius Classrooms - to a further six schools in late 2015. 
One Chinese-Australian parent, whose son is at a school where attendance at the Confucius Classrooms program is compulsory from kindergarten to year 2, said it was akin to "the infiltration of the Chinese Communist Party into the NSW public school system". 
Confucius Classrooms are administered by the Confucius Institute, headquartered in Beijing's agency known colloquially as Hanban, the Office of the Chinese Language Council. 

In an attractive package for cash-strapped public school principals eager to offer their students Asian languages, the NSW schools are paid $10,000 in the first year for teaching resources, and supplied with "teaching assistants" who are hired and paid by Hanban in China. Jean Zhang from the Confucius Institute at La Trobe University which runs the program in Victoria, said in addition to $10,000 upfront cash, participating schools received 50,000 yuan ($10,598) worth of "books or cultural material" each year. 
There are no other foreign language programs paid for by foreign governments in NSW schools.
Sydney resident Carole Lu, from Taiwan, says she avoided enrolling her seven-year-old daughter in a school that offered Confucius Classrooms and instead teaches her Chinese at home because of her concerns about the program. 
"It's quite shocking to us," she says. "Everything the teachers have learnt, their background is communism. ... That is the thing I'm really worried about. I don't want her to be involved in any of the ideology of the Communist Party."
Ms Lu questions how topics that are routinely censored by the Chinese Communist Party would be handled in the classes, and dislikes the program's use of the simplified Chinese alphabet over traditional characters that are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 
"Individual people, parents, we think it's not right, but it's really hard," she says. "Don't worry, we're not going to have a revolution. It's simply about the education of our children.  The whole environment is going against what we're saying. What can we do?"
Officially, the Confucius Institutes are non-profit public institutions promoting Chinese language and culture worldwide. Since their inception in 2004, many Australian universities have opened a Confucius Institute. 
But they are viewed uneasily by some China watchers. Hanban is headed by a government official, the Vice-Minister of Education, and since 2014 about eight universities worldwide have closed Confucius Institutes after deciding they were too closely directed by Beijing, restricted academic freedom or even - in the case of Japan's Osaka Sangyo University - for allegedly providing a front for espionage.
These classes might be free to Treasury, but they are paid for by exposing children to a foreign government's propaganda machine.
David Shoebridge
And in late 2014, the Toronto School Board scrapped its Confucius Classrooms program due to concerns about its connection with the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda aims, where topics including Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square student massacre, Tibet, the Uighurs and Taiwan are highly sensitive. 
Independent China expert Professor Jocelyn Chey of the University of Sydney said: "One might say that if a school program is 'just teaching language', it could not be political, but with Chinese everything is political."
Former Greens MLC John Kaye, who died this month, put questions to the Education Minister in Parliament in December last year about oversight of Confucius Classrooms. 
The minister refused to answer questions about payments, teacher hiring, the government's memorandum of understanding with Hanban or bureaucrats' trips to China, but said oversight of Confucius Classrooms was the responsibility of individual principals. Department teachers are supposed to be present during classes, but it was not revealed how many are fluent in Chinese.
"These classes might be free to Treasury, but they are paid for by exposing children to a foreign government's propaganda machine," said David Shoebridge, the Greens' acting education spokesman. "Most Confucius Classrooms operate with no department official having any idea what is being taught or how disputed issues such as human rights and contested territories are handled." He said the government should follow Toronto's lead and replace teachers on the Chinese government payroll with teachers accredited in NSW for Chinese classes. 
A spokesman for the Education Department did not answer questions about whether it was appropriate for a Chinese government body to run classes in NSW public schools. 
"The Confucius Institute aims to improve students' understanding of Chinese language and culture, and facilitates partner school relationships with China," he said.
"The teaching assistants complete a Working with Children Check and mandatory training, and their salaries are paid by Confucius Institute headquarters.
"Should controversial issues or politically sensitive topics arise, they are dealt with in the same way as they would be in other subject areas, ie teachers ensure students are aware of all the points of view."
The Chinese embassy referred the Herald's questions to Hanban, and attempts to contact Hanban were unsuccessful. 
The Confucius Classrooms are now offered at four primary schools: Chatswood, Kensington, Hurstville South and Rouse Hill; and nine high schools: Coffs Harbour, Fort Street, Kingsgrove North, Mosman, Rooty Hill, Bonnyrigg, Chatswood, Concord and Homebush Boys. The program has also been offered at two Sydney private schools, Wenona and King's School.