Voices of dissent over Confucius Classrooms

China's soft power push Down Under raises fears that it is being used for propaganda

China has been paying schools in Australia to help run Chinese-language courses but the scheme has faced criticism from some MPs and parents who say it is part of Beijing's "propaganda machine".

The Confucius Classrooms programme, run by China's national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language (Hanban), is part of Beijing's effort to project soft power internationally but has proven controversial in numerous countries.

The scheme involves providing some A$10,000 (S$10,040) each to primary schools or high schools to run the classes as well as providing teaching materials and teaching assistants sent from China.

A rising number of state and private schools in Australia have set up Confucius Classrooms, including 13 schools in the state of New South Wales (NSW) and 12 in Victoria.

The programme, which was set up about five years ago, has been defended by state governments as a way to promote language learning and cultural exchange, but has come under heavy criticism.

The Greens party, which has long been a vocal critic of China's approach to human rights, has led the attack, saying the scheme could be used by Beijing to enforce the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) position on  "social and geopolitical issues such as human rights, Tibet, Taiwan and the Falungong".

"Most Confucius Classrooms operate with no (Department of Education) official having any idea what is being taught or how disputed issues such as human rights and contested territories are handled," Greens MP David Shoebridge said in a statement on May 29.

Hanban has been setting up Confucius Classrooms and Confucius Institutes, the latter typically affiliated with universities, around the world since 2004.

But institutions in various countries have objected. Canada's largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, decided to end the scheme in 2014 and numerous universities have severed ties to the institutes, including the University of Chicago in the US and Stockholm University in Sweden.

In Australia, numerous Confucius Institutes have been set up at top universities but the main criticism has focused on the programme at primary and high schools.

Some parents are worried about the potential for Beijing to use the programme for political purposes.

Sydney resident Carole Lu, who is from Taiwan, told The Sun Herald that she refused to enrol her seven- year-old daughter in it because she was worried about CCP ideology entering the classroom via the teaching assistants.

A spokesman for the Confucius Institute in NSW defended the programmes, saying the decision whether to establish a Confucius Classroom was for each school's principal. She told The Straits Times the curriculum was decided by the school and followed the state's education syllabus.

"The syllabus is not imported from China," she said. The Confucius Institutes run the Confucius Classrooms in schools.

The Chinese Language Teachers' Association of NSW, which represents about 160 teachers - who are all citizens or permanent residents - released a statement on June 1, saying the syllabuses did not include "political content".

For now, the programme looks set to spread, not least because it is a handy way for cash-strapped schools to extend language learning. But the growing cries of concern suggest they are likely to come under increasing scrutiny.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Voices of dissent over Confucius Classrooms'. Print Edition | Subscribe