By: Vu Lam

The recent clash between pro-Hong Kong and pro-Chinese students on the University of Queensland campus in Australia is a telling example that China’s version of soft power, partly promoted by Confucius Institutes, is not always necessarily soft.

The clash, which took place in mid-July, is the latest development in a series of complications long swept under the rug.  That is the influence the Chinese government has on educational independence in Australian universities. As a result of the incident, the government in Canberra has begun an investigation into whether agreements between the universities and their 14 Confucian Institutes have violated anti-foreign interference laws passed last year. The Sydney Morning Herald recently published contracts showing several universities had given the schools ultimate control over “teaching quality.”

Internationally, as Asia Sentinel has reported, there have been concerns that the establishment of such institutes, which have direct and munificent Chinese government backing, would at best jeopardize academic freedom and at worst provide venues for espionage and surveillance.  The Confucius Institutes have spread across the globe, not just to Australia, where more than 200,000 Chinese students are studying, but to six continents, with hundreds opened. The highest concentration is in the United States, Japan and South Korea as universities have succumbed to the lure of Chinese funding that too often provides propaganda for mainland viewpoints at the expense of independent analysis.

While the list of allegations runs long, at least for now people have a firmer reason to believe that the surveillance part is not quite far-fetched. The peaceful protest at the university’s Confucius Institute was disrupted by a pro-Chinese government group in which punches were thrown.

In 2014, another high profile case saw pro-Taiwan materials removed at the request of Hanban, officially the Office of the Chinese Language Council International and Confucius Institute headquarters, before the opening of a Chinese Studies conference in Portugal. 

This Queensland incident might as well be just another writing on the wall for those Australian institutions that have hosted the institutes. But it is still unclear whether they have learned their lesson. Benefits, both short- and long-term, seem to outweigh potential threats, partly evidenced by the fact that none of the 13 hosting universities chose to opt into the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. Hanban is paying host universities A$150,000 for each CI, but the benefits must have run deeper than that, including overhead costs and revenue sharing.

Australia’s universities can say that they are forced by economic circumstances to allow the institutes onto campus, since successive governments have delivered funding cuts by the billion, leaving universities to rely on international students, the majority of whom are from China. Investigative reports have shown that these universities are willing to comply with Hanban’s directives over the facilities.

As usual, online backlash kickstarts a chain reaction, intriguing the press and prompting government action. Starting with clips of the incident widely shared on social media and provoking outrage among a group of people over a perceived threat to freedom of speech, the press picks up and spreads the news, effectively intensifying public concerns.

Eventually, the government is prompted to investigate the CI arrangements, after an assessment by the New South Wales government last year on the Confucius Classroom program.

In the court of public opinion, the blame game has already begun. Australia warned Chinese diplomats against interfering with Australian freedom of speech after the Chinese consulate in Brisbane praised the pro-Chinese students for being patriotic. All the while, Chinese news media are lambasting the US Central Intelligence Agency for allegedly being behind the staging of this pro-democracy rally.

It is just hard to tell what’s next when the dust has settled, but damage to China’s reputation has been done and its soft power took a hit. The universities concerned probably won’t emerge unscathed, either.

What seems obvious, though, is that the charm offensive can be quite offensive, and soft power in the Chinese way can be aggressive. In the competition for soft power, China is by no mean a cheapskate. China since 2004 has aggressively invested in the expansion of CI and Confucius classrooms around the world.

As often is the case, whether such effort pays a dividend is up to debate, and as for China, all the opinion polls don’t look favorable with the most recent one by Lowy Institute showing a sharp decline in Australian public warmth towards China. An incident like the Queensland protest can only add insult to injury. In the US, at least 10 universities have closed or planned to close down their CIs for fear of Chinese government-influenced activities.

Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig label the Chinese soft power efforts as sharp power, as they “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries”. Joseph Nye, the father of soft power, notes that, while government backing does not constitute a sharp-power threat, as in the case of BBC, a CI that “crosses the line and tries to infringe on academic freedom” has certainly ventured into the realm of sharp power.

The Queensland incident coincides with the ongoing maritime hard-power showdown in the South China Sea in which Beijing has escalated its aggression by sending a survey ship to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. One could be forgiven for thinking that the peaceful rise of China, once again, is not so pacific.

Vu Lam is a PhD candidate at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies (Advanced) from the University of Queensland. His 10-year stint as international officer for a flagship Vietnamese university has sparked his academic interest in soft power and public diplomacy.