China accused of buying influence over Australian universities

Beijing said to be making ‘concerted campaign’ to extend soft power, neutralise opposition to South China Sea territorial claims

June 9, 2016
China flag, chinese

The Chinese government is buying influence over Australian universities by donating libraries and funds for institutes as part of a broader push to strengthen its soft power in the country, two Australian journalists have argued.

There appears to be “a concerted campaign to promote Beijing’s strategic interests in Australia through deals covering all the key areas of society”, claims a new piece in the Australian Financial Review.

The debate in Australia echoes concerns in the US, where the Chinese government has been accused of seeking to exert control over the academy by funding Confucius Institutes on university campuses.

The institutes are normally limited to teaching courses on Chinese language and culture and organising events, but critics have argued that they exert a chilling effect on debate about China’s ruling Communist Party and could be used to observe Chinese students abroad. US universities including Penn State University have already closed their Confucius Institutes because of these fears.

In Australia, the Chinese government has donated a library to the University of Technology Sydney, while the Chinese Yuhu Group donated AUS$3.5 million (£1.8 million) to the University of Western Sydney to fund a new Chinese cultural institute and AUS$1.8 million to create the Australia China Relations Institute, the AFR article says.

The authors, Angus Grigg and Primrose Riordan, write that the Chinese government is also buying influence over other areas of Australian society.

“To date money linked to China’s Communist Party has flowed to both major political parties, universities, primary schools, the national broadcaster and this week to the country’s biggest media companies,” they write.

They quote Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, who said: “We have to assume that there is a larger strategy by the Communist Party to shift domestic public opinion in Australia on sensitive issues such as the US alliance and the South China Sea.

“The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the University of Western Sydney directed Times Higher Education to a statement released last year about the establishment of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, which says it will be “an important point of access to Chinese culture, providing resources, support and expertise for those wishing to study and research one of the world’s oldest and most enduring societies”.

The University of Technology Sydney had not responded by THE’s publication deadline. 

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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