China-funded centres spark freedom concerns

New China-funded research and learning centres have sprung up at the University of Auckland, with little fanfare. Laura Walters asks whether Kiwis should be concerned about foreign government funding within New Zealand universities.

The University of Auckland’s new Model Confucius Institute and Centre for Chinese Studies in Oceania have been touted by China as platforms to facilitate Belt and Road construction between China and New Zealand.

The opening of the new organisations have come at a time when China’s relations with the world are changing and New Zealand is entering an era that has been described by academics as a complicated time in history.

Some are concerned at the suggestion a centre at a university would promote a specific policy – like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - rather than general knowledge about China, and policies.

Meanwhile, there is also concern among some that accepting funding from other countries, and their governments, will erode academic freedom.

Academic freedom has recently been a hotly debated topic in New Zealand, centred on the case of Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady.

Brady has been critical of China’s actions in New Zealand, and its push for power. Brady says her work has prompted a campaign of intimidation by the Chinese state, and alleges the Communist Party of China is behind burglaries at her house and work, and recent tampering with her car. These incidents are currently being investigated by police.

This has led to three open letters stating support for Brady and academic freedom.

One open letter was addressed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, calling on her Government to speak up in support of academic freedom, following the Brady case.

Another, published earlier this month, was signed by 169 academics, journalists and politicians from around the world, saying they were “alarmed and appalled” by the recent events.

What are the new centres?

Last month, the new Fudan-University of Auckland Centre for Chinese Studies in Oceania and the Model Confucius Institute – the first in Australasia - were launched in the Auckland Council-owned Pembridge House.

The building was revamped for the Confucius Institute’s Auckland centre with funding from Hanban – the Chinese Government’s Confucius Institute headquarters.

This is typical of the opening of the upgraded Model Confucius Institutes, with Hanban paying for new or expanded learning centres in places like Zambia, Ghana, Fiji and Nottingham.

During her speech at the launch event, Chinese Consul-general to New Zealand Xu Erwen said China’s reform and “opening up” had brought about transformation in China and around the world.

“Only if we understand each other better and open up to each other wider, can we make progress and build a community with shared future for mankind together with other countries,” she said.

Xu also spoke about the two platforms being used to help advance China’s BRI programme, despite the University of Auckland saying this was not the intention, and that it had not been discussed.

“I sincerely hope that the people and friends of our two countries will use these two platforms to facilitate the Belt and Road construction between China and New Zealand and make more contribution to promoting the friendly relations and mutual understanding,” Xu said.

New Zealand was the first western country to sign a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with China in 2017, but there has been no further clarification of what this would look like in New Zealand.

University of Auckland Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Jennifer Dixon said there had been no clarification of what the BRI might mean in terms of New Zealand’s contribution.

Last month, Ardern met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Singapore, where BRI was mentioned, but not in a “substantive” way, according to Ardern.

While Chinese language media claimed Ardern said “New Zealand firmly conducts cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative”, it is understood Li mentioned BRI, and Ardern just acknowledged the comment, without making any commitments.

“In discussion with Chinese partners, the involvement of the Institute and the Centre with Belt and Road Initiatives has not been raised and it is not planned that either platform will be doing so,” Dixon said.

The key purpose of the centre was to create a platform for research, she said.

While the Confucius Institute (CI) was a cultural and language support entity, the Fudan-Auckland Centre was set up to “explore and engage in appropriate academic activities such as research”, she said.

It would involve collaboration between the Universities of Auckland and Fudan but also more widely across Oceania.

The centre currently has no budget allocated or staff appointed.

A programme of activities would be developed next year, and would likely include a seminar or forum held mid-year on an undetermined topic, Dixon said.

Meanwhile, the CI model is well-known, with hundreds of the language and culture learning centres across the globe, including in Auckland, Canterbury and Victoria universities.

According to figures obtained by Stuff under the Official Information Act, New Zealand’s CIs received more than $840,000 from the Chinese government last year, while the host universities contributed a combined $1.3 million.

The Auckland CI received almost $330,000 from Hanban in 2017. The institute's total funding came to more than $1m, including funding from the university and other partners.

The report by Stuff also showed regular correspondence between the Auckland Confucius Institute and Chinese consular authorities, which talked about “important events”, including a business forum focusing on BRI.

The university has not been able to immediately supply funding figures relating to the Model CI and the refurbishment of the building.

Is academic freedom at risk?

All CIs have to obey the laws and regulations of China, and have become unpopular in some countries in recent months. In the United States the Pentagon is barred from funding CIs on US campuses, and parts of Australia are also looking at the funding model due to concerns about foreign influence.

In New Zealand, the debate is in its infancy, but it has come to the forefront since Brady published her 2017 paper Magic Weapons.

A growing number of academics and the Chinese dissident community in New Zealand questioned whether money could be received from a foreign state without strings attached – or at least a perceptual issue.

Dixon said the activities of the CI operated separately from university faculties and their delivery of academic teaching and research programmes.

This meant the CI itself was not an academic research enterprise, nor did it teach courses for degree credit.

“As such it does not bear on issues of academic freedom or influence,” she said.

As there was no suggestion of the CI influencing academic programmes, there was no need for additional mitigation beyond the university’s normal practices, she added.

Victoria University School of Language and Cultures adjunct teaching fellow Duncan Campbell said whatever was actually happening at the University of Auckland, it was a matter of perception.

China had relationships with universities throughout the world – as many countries did – but with the US pulling back, China was looking to countries like new Zealand to build partnerships, he said.

What used to be OK, was no longer accepted, when it came to relationships with China, he said, adding that the situation in China was changing.

New Zealand needed to decide what it believed in terms of its foreign policy, and values, and hold true to it.

If the new centre was being used to promote a specific foreign policy, like BRI, that was slipping over the line, Campbell said.

Director of Victoria’s Contemporary China Research Centre Jason Young said it was vital academics retained their autonomy and independence.

The centre invited Chinese academics to New Zealand and vice versa, which meant both groups could maintain control of their narratives.

“As the world becomes more complicated, I think that’s a really good model.”

New Zealand universities had a statutory obligation to protect academic freedom, and act as critic and conscience of society, “not a voice piece for a particular form of policy from any government anywhere, even our own,” he said.

New Zealand universities should not accept funding from other countries, especially those with governments very different to New Zealand’s.

However, it was difficult when funding for independent China studies was low.

“At the moment we really need, as the world’s becoming more complicated, as relations with China are becoming more complicated, the focus should be on adequately resourcing existing New Zealand expertise,” Young said.

New Zealand academia needed to develop its own narrative on China.

“We’re moving into a really complicated period of international history and there’s going to be lots of different voices, so which voices are our trusted voices?”

Young and Campbell both noted the lack of information about the new centre at the University of Auckland.

It was important to know where the funding was coming from, what its purpose was, and who would be employed.

In terms of the CI, Young said he tried not to get involved in what the Victoria University CI or others were doing, in order to maintain his autonomy as the centre’s director.

However, it is worth noting the chairman of the centre – former diplomat Tony Browne – was also chair of Victoria’s CI.

While Browne described the roles as management rather than policy, and others cited a small pool of experts who could hold the roles in New Zealand, the perceptual issue had been raised on more than one occasion.

No cause for concern - politicians

While the academic community was keeping a close eye on the situation, Kiwi politicians did not seem to be concerned about the state of academic freedom in New Zealand.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said while he accepted universities had been under-funded in recent years, the state of academic freedom in universities wasn’t a matter for him to have an opinion on, as they were autonomous and had the freedom to form their own relationships.

“I think there’s been a lot more reliance on international education generally and international linkages generally to supplement the income sources of New Zealand universities,” he said, adding that universities were legislatively required to operate in a way that safeguarded academic freedom.

When pushed about whether he had any concerns regarding academic freedom, he said: “We fund universities; the New Zealand Government provides the vast bulk of their funding. They don’t seem to have any hesitation of criticising us.”

However, the New Zealand and Chinese governments are widely accepted to be different beasts, with different values, especially when it comes to academic freedom, dealing with criticism, and transparency.

Last month, when confronted with one of the open letters, Ardern said if she were to receive a report that attributed the break-ins at Brady’s house, or other alleged intimidation, to China, she would act on it. But for now, her silence was appropriate given the ongoing police investigation.

Meanwhile, National Party education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye also said she would have to see specific examples of erosion of academic freedom in order to have cause for concern – implying she did not believe that was happening in the Brady case.

It was not unusual for other countries’ governments to fund foreign language teaching, she said, citing the likes of France and Japan.

Kaye also pointed to the autonomy and independence of universities when she refused to wade in further.

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