Thirteen Confucius institutes hosted by universities in Australia may be facing closure on suspicion of spreading propaganda for the Communist Party of China as relations between the two countries worsen, Australian media has reported.
The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology announced shutting down its Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute this year due to a limited budget caused by COVID-19, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday.
Another school, the University of Sydney, was among the first to submit related contracts for inspection under the Commonwealth’s new foreign veto scheme, the report said.
James Paterson, the chair of the Federal Parliament’s security and intelligence committee, advised the 13 Australian universities to think about their roles in hosting the Confucius institutes.
“Universities should carefully consider whether hosting an entity funded by a foreign authoritarian government engaged in serious human rights abuses for the purposes of promoting its soft power is something consistent with their values,” the news report cited Paterson as saying.
Under foreign veto laws passed in December, the Australian foreign minister has the power to cancel agreements between overseas governments and the country’s states, territories and institutions that are found to contradict Canberra’s foreign policy.
According to the news report, the 13 Australian universities that were partnering with China’s universities to provide Chinese culture and language learning courses came under scrutiny amid concerns that the Confucius institutes were actually functioning as channels of propaganda on behalf of the authorities in Beijing.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne would look into the contracts on a case-by-case basis to decide whether to cancel those agreements, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was quoted as saying.
All the 13 schools are expected to hand over their contracts for scrutiny by the deadline of June 10. Besides the University of Sydney, Victoria University in Melbourne, the University of Queensland in Brisbane and the University of Western Australia in Perth have passed the necessary documents to the department.
The University of Melbourne, La Trobe University in Melbourne and the University of New South Wales in Sydney said that they planned to send in the contracts before the deadline.
The University of Adelaide, meanwhile, said that it was discussing with the federal government whether the law was applicable.
Natasha Kassam from the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney, said that most of the universities had discussed the agreements again with their Chinese counterparts, but such moves were unlikely to guarantee propaganda-free educational topics for Australian students, such as human rights in Taiwan or mainland China.
She said that it was an “overreach” for the government to exercise the veto power to shutter the Confucius institutes.
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