Discussion on Petition Signed by 10,000 or More Persons

October 14, 2011

The New South Wales Parliament (Australia)
Mr JAMIE PARKER (Balmain) [Transcript 6.23 p.m.]:

I wish to speak in support of a petition of 10,000 citizens opposing Chinese government funded language and culture classes in New South Wales public schools. I acknowledge the fact that this Government has allowed us the capacity to discuss issues in Parliament when 10,000 or more citizens sign a petition. I congratulate the people who have signed these petitions and those who have sought the petitions. I am fully supportive of the teaching of Chinese culture and language. I am strongly supportive of engaging with the people of China. I have visited China. My sisters speak Mandarin fluently, having completed degrees in the Mandarin language and lived and worked in China. I note for members who are watching this evening from their televisions in their offices that the public gallery is full of people who are concerned about this issue. This is the beginning of a campaign that will be run over time on this issue.

Concerns have been raised by teachers, parents and the community over the quality and impartiality of so-called Confucius classes. I note that the member for Parramatta has tabled another petition of 10,000 signatures on the same issue, so it is clear that there are community concerns. The Greens are concerned that the integrity of public education is being compromised by opportunities for a foreign government to promote views outside of the school curriculum for school students. The New South Wales Government has admitted that topics sensitive to the Chinese government—including Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong and human rights violations—would not be included in these classes.

Teachers in Australia’s Confucius classes are employed by the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, an arm of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is affiliated to the Chinese Ministry of Education. Teachers must meet certain criteria, including not having had any involvement in Falun Gong. It is clear that the teachers have been politically vetted and will be deeply prejudiced toward Beijing’s orthodoxy on many sensitive issues. If it is true that the purpose of the classes is simply to teach Chinese language and culture, there is no justification for excluding teachers based on their own personal beliefs. Indeed, such discrimination may violate Australian workplace law. This indicates that teachers are being handpicked to support the Beijing regime and to ensure compliance with the views of the party in China. It is natural for students learning languages to ask questions about culture, tradition and history in China. I am greatly concerned that they will not receive the impartial responses that our curriculum highlights.

The Greens welcome the teaching of Chinese language and culture, but these classes are different from other international language programs, such as Alliance Francaise. Confucius classes are directly linked to, and funded by, the Chinese government. This is highly problematic in the teaching of language and culture, which should be free from government bias and control. That is why we have an independent curriculum process. Professor Chey, an expert on Australia-China relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs, discussed the distinction between Confucius institutes and other international language programs in an address to the Sydney Institute—a place that I am not often fond of quoting—when she said that with China’s growing economic might it was using its soft power internationally through this program to counter the influence of Taiwan. She stated:

The Chinese Communist Party sees promotion of Chinese language and culture as a way of creating a favourable public opinion climate, particularly among overseas Chinese.

This programme is modelled on the century-old Alliance Francaise system but differs in that it is more closely managed by the Chinese Government.

What distinguishes Confucius institutes programs from other language programs is the level of control exercised by the Chinese government in their administration. In 2007, in an article in the University World News, journalist Geoff Maslen said:

Although the French Government subsidises the Alliance Francaise by an amount equivalent to 5 per cent of the total budget, outside the Paris headquarters local operations are independently run franchises. There is no Government representation in their administration and they are not hosted or sponsored by [other] organisations.

It is important to recognise that the level of control exercised by the Chinese government over these classes is problematic when it comes to the treatment of a range of sensitive topics. Dr Lambert, one of the institute’s six board members, highlighted in the Sydney Morning Herald the approach to history and culture in addition to the approved syllabus. He said:

The syllabus provides baseline Mandarin, and the Confucius classrooms augment that and also add a lot more than that in terms of contemporary culture and also the history of China.

Impressionable students are therefore potentially being exposed to a biased view of Chinese history, human rights and world affairs. The right to determine what is taught in New South Wales classrooms is being compromised, in my view, by this program. Many schools do not have the resources, as the Government has claimed, to scrutinise the content of the so-called Confucius classrooms. It has also been said that these classes will only teach language and culture. The question of culture and politics cannot be separated when it comes to the party in China. The regime uses culture, such as the dominance of one culture over that of other ethnic groups, in a political manner to sustain the legitimacy of one party state. Teaching language and culture is important and is supported, but it is clear that there are significant problems.

New South Wales is the first school body to form a partnership with the Confucius Institute, with a range of schools in July 2011. Research undertaken by Falk Hartig of the University of Technology found that around the world Confucius Institutes do not address issues which the Chinese Government considers sensitive. These include topics such as Falun Gong, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre, all of which are critical to an understanding of Chinese culture and history. The Confucius Institute is funded directly by the Chinese Government. The Manitoba University in Canada became concerned about hosting a Confucius Institute course after an instructor called on her students to work together to fight the Canadian Government’s media coverage of the paramilitary effort to crush Tibetan unrest prior to the Olympic Games. It is clear the track record of the Confucius Institute is not a positive one. The Greens fully support the teaching of Chinese language and culture but we are concerned by the extensive evidence linking these classes to foreign bias and interference. We call on the Government to remove these classes from New South Wales and replace them with classes run by Australian organisations to ensure the curriculum of any course in Chinese language or culture in New South Wales is free from censorship or propaganda.

Mr PAUL TOOLE (Bathurst—Parliamentary Secretary) [6.33 p.m.]: I start by stating that Australia regards its relationship with China as one of its most important and significant. This relationship is based on a common interest and mutual respect and provides opportunities to maximise shared economic interests and to promote Australia’s strategic interests while also acknowledging our distinct societies and values. In recent years the bilateral relationship has grown and diversified. Not only does it extend beyond trade but it is now of significance to State and regional priorities and presents a growing number of opportunities. It is because of this that the Government has a responsibility to ensure that New South Wales is well equipped to engage competitively in the opportunities that are being generated as a result of the bilateral relationship that exists between China and Australia.

Part of this responsibility includes the provision of opportunities for young people to learn a Chinese language and develop an understanding of Chinese culture. The importance of teaching and learning Chinese language and culture in our current and future economic environment cannot be ignored. We should be looking to enrich the content of educational exchange and to enhance the level of educational cooperation between the two countries. Both sides are mature enough to also understand where and how we are respectively different. This is all at a time when globalisation is demanding that we keep up with the rest of the world. We have never been more aware of the value of a multiliterate and multilingual society that can appreciate all that makes other cultures and nations distinctive, even as it embraces all that they have in common.

Learning a language helps give young people the academic hunger, thirst and confidence to keep on exploring the world around them. The New South Wales Department of Education and Communities collaborates with many foreign governments, including Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Korea and China, to support language education in public schools. The establishment of a Confucius Institute strengthens the existing relationship between China and the Department of Education and Communities, to enhance quality teaching and learning of Chinese language in our public schools.

As early as 1997 the then Department of Education and Training and the Chinese Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China entered into a memorandum of understanding to boost the teaching and learning of Chinese in our public schools. In 2002 the department signed a further memorandum of understanding with the Education Department of Jiangsu Province in China for a reciprocal student exchange program. The aim of the agreement was to foster language skills development and offer opportunities for inter-cultural learning. Over 300 Confucius institutes had been established in more than 90 countries to enhance understanding of Chinese language and culture and to strengthen our educational and cultural exchange and cooperation.

Across Australia there are nine Confucius institutes established within universities. Within New South Wales Confucius institutes are located at the University of Sydney, Newcastle University and the University of New South Wales. The department’s Confucius Institute will be the first one to be established in an educational institution other than a university within Australia. In addition to the Confucius Institute, the department is in the process of establishing seven Confucius classrooms to promote and enhance Chinese language teaching in public schools in New South Wales. These schools are: Chatswood Public School, Kensington Public School, Coffs Harbour High School, Fort Street High School, Kingsgrove North High School, Mosman High School and St Marys Senior High School. The classrooms are to become operational in 2012. All of the seven schools offer Chinese language as part of the school curriculum and the introduction of Confucius classrooms will develop existing Chinese language programs within a rich learning environment. Teaching programs within the Confucius classrooms will be taught by qualified department teachers with teachers’ assistants provided through the Confucius Institute agreement.

All programs within these classrooms are aligned to the New South Wales Board of Studies-developed syllabuses for Chinese people. These syllabuses do not include the study of political content. School principals will monitor the quality and independence of this area of program and the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities Confucius Board will continue to work with stakeholders in the implementation and evaluation of the program. Staff at the Confucius Institute will support schools with Confucius classrooms through the provision of quality teaching resources and professional learning opportunities for teachers of Chinese language.

The interest in Chinese language and culture is strong for both cultural and commercial reasons. It can further be expected that China’s growing global importance will continue to foster strong demand for the teaching of Chinese language programs within New South Wales schools. Confucius classrooms are an opportunity for our students that we cannot dismiss. They will provide rich learning activities and support for our teachers that will lead to the best possible learning outcomes for students in our schools.

Ms CARMEL TEBBUTT (Marrickville) [6.37 p.m.]: I thank all those people who signed the petition. It is a very important part of participating in the democratic process. I know they have strong views and it is good that we have this opportunity in Parliament to debate the issues raised in the petition. There is no doubt that the study of languages is important for the students of New South Wales, both for the intrinsic academic benefits it brings but also because it allows students to better understand and better engage with the world around us. The study of Asian languages is particularly important for Australia because we need to continue to build our links in the Asia-Pacific region and it is also important for our future economic prosperity.

Many of our major trading partners are Asian nations and we will need an increasing number of New South Wales students who are proficient in Asian languages to compete in the globalised economy of the future. According to figures from 2010, fewer than 6 per cent of students complete Asian languages in year 12, and between 2000 and 2008 there was a 22 per cent decline in Australia in the number of students studying one of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean. We have a long way to go to be successful in meeting our targets of an increased number of students fluent in these languages.

I have sought advice from the Minister and the Government about the Confucius classroom program. I have been advised that the Confucius classrooms operate as learning facilities within a school where language lessons are delivered. We have already heard from the Parliamentary Secretary which schools the program will operate in. The students are taught by approved department teachers and the curriculum programs are based on prescribed Board of Studies New South Wales syllabuses. The schools and classes adhere to department policies and procedures, and teachers have access to regional and State office resources and support. Confucius classrooms will benefit from having additional funding to purchase appropriate resources, targeted expert curriculum advice from the department’s Confucius Institute and the provision of volunteer teachers from China who will share their expertise in Chinese language with the classroom teacher. I understand from advice I have received that the Office of the Chinese Language Council International and the Confucious Institute do not fund Chinese language teachers in government schools. Teaching and learning programs in Confucious classrooms will be based on the Mandarin language syllabuses prescribed by the New South Wales Board of Studies. These syllabuses do not include the study of political content. The New South Wales Department of Education and Community’s Confucious Institute is a language centre and it is solely partnered with Jiangsu Provincial Educational Department in China.

It has been reported that staff at other Confucious institutes at Sydney universities have not had their academic freedom threatened, although the member for Balmain has indicated that it has been reported as an issue in other countries. I understand that the petitioners have deeply felt concerns about the potential for the Confucious Classrooms Program to have inappropriate political influence on students and that it will not allow for unbiased discussions about issues that are sensitive for China. I make it absolutely clear that there is no place for foreign governments to determine what our teachers teach and the values that are upheld in our schools. However, I understand that the memorandum of understanding between the New South Wales and Chinese governments make it clear that the language and culture content taught in our schools will conform to the Chinese language syllabuses as independently prescribed by the Board of Studies. As has been said, these syllabuses do not include the study of political content.

Principals will monitor the quality and the independence of the program. In my experience, particularly as a former education Minister, it is not unusual for controversies to arise from time to time about what is taught in our schools, whether it be the Chinese language, environmental studies, some interpretations of history or sex education. On the whole, I have faith in our teachers and our principals to understand when they are dealing with sensitive issues, but to teach with honesty and balance, and in a way that is age appropriate. I have always found that our teachers and principals are capable of doing that. New South Wales has a good curriculum and curriculum development process. So I have confidence that the concerns raised by the petitioners will not come to pass. Nonetheless I intend to monitor this issue closely to ensure that the Government adheres to its commitments.

Discussion concluded.