Inside the decision to scrap controversial Confucius doco
A documentary critical of China’s Confucius Institutes has had varied reception across the globe. Laura Walters uncovers the story behind a cancelled viewing at the University of Auckland.
In the Name of Confucius is critically acclaimed, but that doesn’t means it’s been easy to get it on cinema screens and show in university lecture halls across the world - and New Zealand's no exception.
Last year, three planned screenings of the documentary in New Zealand created controversy, with opposition to an AUT screening from the Chinese Consulate in Auckland, and a cancelled screening at the University of Auckland.
The issues surrounding the documentary’s screening in New Zealand has led to discussions about freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the universities’ role to act as critic and conscience of society. As well as China’s influence within universities.
The University of Auckland is one of the country’s three universities that hosts a Confucius Institute, and last year it was awarded model status by Hanban – the Confucius headquarters in China.
Emails obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act show there were fears of potential "reputational damage" should the screening go ahead, and what was supposed to be a simple event took on a life of its own.
The university host - medical ethicist associate professor Phillipa Malpas - said she personally made the decision to close the screening to the public due to logistics, and later cancelled the event when things became political.
A university spokesperson confirmed they did not block the screening, and Malpas made the decisions to change the format, then cancel the event.
But the reaction from the university and the public raises further questions about the role of the Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Communist Party’s goal for the language and cultural centres.
Opposition to screenings widespread
Canadian filmmaker Doris Liu said her documentary met its fair share of opposition around the world – not just in New Zealand.
Cinemas in Sydney, which initially wanted to show the documentary, withdrew support, and Japan’s government faced pressure from China not to allow Liu to screen the film at a Japanese government-owned venue, she said.
Victoria University of Melbourne also cancelled a screening in September last year, she said. Reports from The Australian said internal emails showed the cancellation happened after the university was contacted by the local Chinese Consulate.
Last year, Liu travelled to New Zealand, where her film was due to be screened at Victoria University in Wellington, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and the University of Auckland in July.
Victoria University and the University of Auckland both host Confucius Institutes, along with Otago in the South Island.
The screening went ahead at Victoria, with Confucius Institute director Rebecca Needham attending, saying the issues raised in the documentary were not a reality at Victoria’s institute.
In an email to institute staff around the country - ahead of the screening - Needham said:
“In case any of you are concerned, I’ve watched the documentary and want to assure you that the case outlined in it is specific to a particiular set of events and individuals in Canada, which bears no resemblance to the way we run the Confucius Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, or for that matter, either of the other two Institutes in New Zealand.”
Needham then went on to explain that the institute’s goals were to promote better understanding of Chinesse language and culture.
AUT also went ahead with their public screening, which Liu attended.
But ahead of the event, the Chinese Consulate contacted AUT to express concern about the screening.
An AUT spokesperson said a student arranged to screen the film and the Chinese Consulate "expressed concern about it being one-sided".
“We explained AUT’s position around freedom of speech and invited them to provide an alternative perspective.”
They didn’t take up this invitation, but visited the university on a subsequent occasion.
“Our relationship remains very cordial,” the spokesperson said.
What happened at Auckland Uni?
The University of Auckland planned to hold their public event on July 26, ahead of AUT's screening.
A poster was circulated with the event details, but when the poster was amended and recirculated without the Auckland University screening, people started asking questions.
One member of the community emailed the director of the university’s North Asia CAPE programme and Asia Studies professor Paul Clark, along with Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon.
This prompted McCutcheon to email Malpas asking her to shed some light on what had happened with the screening.
“I am not asking you to change anything, but the press loves this sort of story so I would like to be clear about the facts,” he said in his email.
Malpas wrote back explaining she had booked the room for the public screening but had then changed it to a private screening, when she could not overcome logistics issues relating to marketing and security.
She referred to discussions with a marketing manager regarding potential reputational damage, and the position of the acting dean of medical and health sciences, who said the screening shouldn’t be supoorted with resources “as it is a poltical argument rather than related to medical and health sciences”.
“When I originally proposed holding this screening ... I had intended for it to be available for the public to attend,” Malpas wrote in her response to the vice-chancellor.
“From emails back, I understood that there may be issues with possible ‘reputational damage’ if the film was to be shown."
“I booked the room in my faculty with that intention. I contacted communications and marketing to ask about advertising the event and to ensure I was being compliant re: university policy etc.
“From emails back, I understood that there may be issues with possible ‘reputational damage’ if the film was to be shown.
“Prof Reid [dean] was contacted by Vicki Griffin [marketing manager] and after some discussion, I agreed to make the event university staff and students only.
“I was not entirely happy about this as I believe the university’s role as conscience and critic supports critical and informed reflection on issues relevant to the community. I also see this as part of my role as an ethicist.”
Malpas told Newsroom the role of Confucius Institutes was worth discussing and it was up to universities to facilitate these discussions, but this event “took on a life of its own”.
After the university did not approve the necessary security and marketing resources needed for a public event, she said it was easier to switch to a private event, rather than push the issue.
At this point people in the community caused some “agitation”, and it was clear they were not happy about the screening being closed.
“It became quite political," she said.
Rather than pursue the issue, which was taking up a lot of time, Malpas postponed the screening indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Liu said a member of the audience at the AUT screening told her he had contacted the vice-chancellor to find out why the University of Auckland screening had been cancelled and was told there was a lack of interest.
Freedom from interference
Liu said universities were supposed to be a place where people could discuss anything and everything.
China had a “strong foothold” in New Zealand, and there was a need to openly discuss the issue of the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Confucius Institutes are just the tip of the iceberg.”
While there may not have been interference by China in New Zealand’s universities, that did not mean there would not be an attempt to in the future, she said, adding that it was important to put in place safeguards to ensure transparency.
Last month, the US Senate recommended that unless there was “full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for US cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China”, those operating in the US should be closed.
Meanwhile, UK thinktank the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and security Studies (RUSI) published a paper recommending universities encourage Confucius Institutes to make operations completely transparent, especially their contracts and finances; deny Confucius Institute staff a say in university matters or China studies faculties; and be more alert to and resist interference in intellectual debate/freedom, such as attempts to bar topics or speakers.
“Confucius Institutes are just the tip of the iceberg.”
ACT leader David Seymour also advocated for free and frank discussion at universities.
It was important to protect the right to free speech in New Zealand society, and especially in universities, he said.
Last year, free speech became a topic of debate at universities after Massey University Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas cancelled a speaking engagement with Don Brash. She cited safety concerns, but emails later revealed the ban on Brash was because Thomas did not want the university to be seen to be “endorsing racist behaviour”.
And in 2009, the University of Auckland cancelled a speaking event with controversial Chinese activist Rebiya Kadeer. The university refused to let the Greens on Campus book a lecture theatre for the event, saying it had security concerns.
Kadeer was “re-invited” to speak at the university following backlash.
In an Official Information Act response to Newsroom in November last year, the University of Auckland’s general counsel Rebecca Ewert said in the past five years no speaker or speaking events had been cancelled due to fear or worry it had, or could, cause offence.
Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.