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The refusal by Australian universities to list their Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes on the foreign influence register has come under bipartisan political attack.
The institutes have long been controversial, but the universities are coming under increased pressure following the decision by Sweden last month to close the last of its Confucius-aligned institutes and classrooms, which operate in high schools.
The United States has closed down a third of its 100 institutes.
The Members of Parliament have raised fresh concerns the institutes are not included on Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) register, despite being invited to consider their position as far back as March last year.
The chair of the Senate foreign affairs committee, Labor’s Kimberley Kitching, said the FITS
legislation was designed to ensure all individuals or organisations that could influence the Australian government and political process were registered.
She questioned whether the scheme was working as it should, if it had failed to sign up “an institute whose syllabus is effectively controlled by a foreign authoritarian government.’’
“More needs to be done to invest in the scheme – language experts are one such example – so that the FITS doesn’t become a toothless tiger,’’ Senator Kitching said.
Another Victorian Labor MP, Peter Khalil, contrasted the non-appearance of the Confucius Institutes on the register with the listing of other, US-backed study centres.
The FITS register was developed in 2018 to record the lawful influence activities of foreign state entities and individuals, and while it does not expressly say so, the legislation is aimed squarely at China.
“If US Studies centres in Perth and the US Asia Studies centre have been registered I see no reason why the Confucius Institutes should not,’’ Mr Khalil said.
“Academic freedom is of paramount importance to democracies and as a matter of principle laws such as the FITS should function to remove any constraints on those freedoms.’’
Ten of the 13 universities told News Corp they did not believe the institutes needed to be registered.
Some MPs are privately questioning whether the FITS legislation is fit for purpose, given its failure to take strong enforcement action against Chinese targets.
Liberal Senator for South Australia Alex Antic said he was concerned about the “soft power influence of the Chinese Communist Party … particularly in a state with a heavy focus on defence like South Australia.’’
“I find it staggering that Confucius Institutes across the nation are not registered pursuant to the Foreign Influence Transparency scheme, the very purpose of which is to provide visibility over the nature and extent of foreign influence,’’ he said.
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler said security agencies had been warning about universities being a target of foreign interference.
“Institutes funded by the propaganda arms of foreign governments should of course be subject to a high level of scrutiny and it would be very concerning if Australian universities were less than fully cooperative in these matters,’’ she said.
Other MPs who raised concerns about the institutes included Victorian Liberals Senator James Paterson and Member for Goldstein Tim Wilson.
In Australia, Confucius Institutes operate at the Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, the University of Queensland, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, University of Sydney, Charles Darwin University in the NT, the University of Adelaide, Victoria University, La Trobe University, RMIT, and University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
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