Gripping story in The Sun-Herald last weekend; pity no-one seems to have followed it up although the mandarins at the NSW Education Department must be fanning themselves in relief.

Teachers from China – with salaries and expenses paid by the Chinese government – will soon help set up “Confucius classrooms” for more than 3000 pupils in seven public high-schools in the city, it was reported.

I know, I know, you think you’re dreaming but you’re not. The initiative will be run by a body called the Confucius Institute.

China has been setting up hundreds of these institutes in joint deals with universities around the world, including Australia, since 2004. It’s accepted that what they do is peddle “soft power”: getting China what it wants through attraction, rather than coercion. Some critics though are blunter, using words like “meddling”, “propaganda” and “politically ambiguous”.

Now a deal has been done for NSW public high schools as Justin Norrie reported in The Sun-Herald last weekend –

The new classes are officially about promoting the study of Chinese language and culture which sounds admirable, except that certain areas of interest to Australian schoolchildren will end up being off-limits.

Best not to have discussions about Tibet, Tiananmen Square, Taiwan or even the fate of jailed Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu when your Chinese studies programme is administered not just by your own education department but with the help of a funding body  that reports to China.

Norrie did an excellent job of covering the story comprehensively, stopping himself just short of bursting into print with, “you have got to be kidding”.

He quoted Dr Phil Lambert, the education department’s regional director for Sydney, where the first classes will begin, saying of sensitive subjects like Tibet and Taiwan and how they might be taught in the Confucius classrooms, “Look, there are topics that are best not to engage in …”

Given time to think about it, a departmental spokesperson later responded to me that “controversial issues would be dealt with in the same way as other issues in schools”.

But last year, Falk Hartig, now a PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology, wrote a paper on the Confucius Institutes operating in Germany. “There was this characteristic phrase that I heard quite often,” he remarked to me. “People would say, ‘yes of course there are several topics we know are sensitive but there are so many other topics…’”

Not so much a sin of omission then, as propaganda by omission.

My concerns are not about “reds under the bed” or “yellow peril”; it’s about who gets to tell the teachers in our schools what to teach to our teenagers. If a university student cares to do research or study in an institute funded by a body with vested interests, that’s his or her decision. High school students don’t have that power.

On-line press releases about the Confucius Institutes – eg from the University of Sydney – invariably mention their partnership with Fudan University in Shangahi and an organization called Hanban. What rarely seems to be noted – you have to dig for it with extra googling – is that Fudan university is under the direct jurisdiction of China’s Ministry of Education and Hanban, the Office of the Chinese Language Council International, is governed by the ministry and other Chinese government departments.

So hello? Or rather, what the *&^%$#(()+?

Pressed for answers, an education department spokesperson confirmed in an email that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with “the Chinese Department of Languages” and that “it was a respected and long-running programme”.

So respected apparently that the spokesperson couldn’t bring themselves to actually write the words “Confucius Institute” or “Office of the Chinese Language Council International” or indeed, “Chinese government”.

I guess that’s a kind of propaganda by omission too.

Both the NSW Education minister, Verity Firth, and the department’s director-general, Michael Coutts-Trotter, I was assured, had approved the initiative.

Are we doing this because China is willing to fork over $200,000 and more to cover teacher salaries, accommodation, travel, and resources with more money to come as the Confucius Classrooms expand through the state’s schools? Are NSW schools that poverty-stricken?

In a fine example of Sydney-city logic, the director of the University of NSW’s Confucius Institute told Norrie there wasn’t much difference between what the CI did compared with the  work of Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut.

Except, neither, unlike the Confucius Institute, are getting offices set up within the state education department. Both conduct almost all their teaching programmes independently at their own premises. And neither is associated with a totalitarian government that doesn’t tolerate dissent; has a history of abusing human rights; is currently imprisoning activists who might be emboldened by the uprisings in the Middle East; and which has recently imprisoned Australian citizens in questionable circumstances.

The NSW P&C associations have been noisily in favour of ethics classes being offered during Special Religious Education time in primary schools. I wondered if they might have something to say about these new high school classes and the move by the education department to embrace a foreign government that so far, doesn’t seem to show too much concern for ethics.

Nope. Answer came there none.

Let’s try and imagine how the education department – and the P&Cs – and maybe bloggers and sections of the media – might react if it was the United States government proposing a programme of “American Classrooms”, with American schoolteachers and costs paid for by the US and with a local regional director apparently agreeing to stay away from sensitive subjects: no Guantanamo Bay; no talk of what made us go to war in Iraq; maybe play down napalm in Vietnam as well …

Don’t worry, it isn’t going to happen.

But the Confucius Classes are going to happen.

Bet you didn’t know.


Just back from overseas and I’m still trying to understand why, unprompted by any political necessity, the Coalition has back-flipped on their pre-Christmas promise to dump independently-taught ethics classes in state primary schools …

Tuesday night, last week, premier-in-waiting Barry O’Farrell explained away the switch to an audience of bishops, moderators, priests and the interested, at a function organized by the Australian Christian Lobby. He said he didn’t want to make any promises to voters that he wouldn’t be able to keep after the election.

With the possibility of the Greens holding the balance of power in the upper house, he felt that a promise to disband the classes might have to be broken.

Follow that logic and you might as well assume that the only policies O’Farrell is pursuing are ones of which the Greens already approve.

Surely not.

But in any case, did O’Farrell and company really think that, after the unfortunate arrest of her husband for allegedly buying a tablet of ecstasy, that NSW Education Minister Verity Firth was going prance around for photo opps with sweet-faced children, bragging about her legislation to entrench the ethics classes.

That could have been hard after that press conference where Firth refused to give a straight answer to reporters asking if she had ever taken ecstasy herself.

“I-have-done-nothing-wrong,” she kept repeating self-righteously.

I consulted my friendly expert in logic who noted of Firth’s performance: “The education minister doesn’t seem to be trying. She is resorting to what you might think of as a surreal syllogism. As in: ‘Have you ever kept zebras in your living-room?’ Answer: ‘I have never had a Great Dane in our bathroom.’ Ms Firth must try harder. But so must her audience.”

The expert is still trying to fathom O’Farrell’s logic.


Religion continues to bring out the pit-bull so in a spirit of appeasement, here’s an oldie but a goodie: a clip based on an Eddie Izzard skit with Izzard’s voiceover about what would have happened if the Church of England had run the Inquisition.