The Chinese state spent close to a million dollars on promoting language and culture through the new Model Confucius Institute in Auckland, at a time when China’s relationship with the Western world is becoming increasingly tense.

Hanban – the Confucius Institute headquarters in China – funded the Auckland branch to the tune of $992,571 in 2017.

The spend included $326,449 on education, community and culture, and operations, with $502,853 going towards accommodation and stipends for the Mandarin Language Assistants, and $163,269 on Confucius classrooms.

Over the same period, the University of Auckland put in $164,860 in operational costs, which covered the institute’s office occupancy and salaries. And $24,583 came from school sponsorships and fundraising.

Last year, the university’s Model Confucius Institute – the first in Australasia – moved to Auckland heritage building Pembridge House, with Hanban funding the costs of the building’s revamp.

This is typical of the opening of the upgraded Model Confucius Institutes, with Hanban paying for new or expanded learning centres in places like Zambia, Ghana, Fiji and Nottingham.

The opening of the new Fudan-University of Auckland Centre for Chinese Studies in Oceania coincided with the launch of the Model Confucius Institute.

There are hundreds of Confucius Institutes across the globe, including in Auckland and Canterbury Universities and Victoria University of Wellington, with an office also in Otago University. The centres teach and promote Chinese language and culture, and are funded and supported by the Chinese state.

Documents released to Newsroom show the new institute and research centre were years in the making.

The University of Auckland and Hanban agreed to open the model institute, and simultaneously undertook to establish the Fudan-University of Auckland Centre in 2014.

The Confucius Institute advisory board met in Auckland on multiple occasions, and in Shanghai, to work on the expansion and promotion of the institute and its goals.

The meetings also resulted in a new strategic plan for the Model Confucius Institute, stretching out to 2020, and the decision to create a Masters of Professional Studies in Teaching Chinese in Schools, run out of the University of Auckland Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Since the masters programme launched in 2016, just two people have completed the course.

The institute’s strategic plan and the board’s meeting minutes talked of the institute and Hanban supporting the masters programme.

“The cool winds of protectionism are blowing and relationships are being tested.

“It is at times like this that the relationships developed through the common bond of knowledge and people-to-people understanding are more important than ever.”

However, a University of Auckland spokesperson said this support was only in terms of encouraging people to undertake the programme. It did not include any funding or input into course design or teaching from the institute or Hanban.

In December, head of the institute’s advisory board and deputy vice chancellor of strategic engagement at the University of Auckland, Professor Jennifer Dixon, told Newsroom the activities of the Confucius Institute operated separately from university faculties and their delivery of academic teaching and research programmes.

“The CI is not itself an academic research enterprise, nor does it teach courses for degree credit,” Dixon said.

“As such it does not bear on issues of academic freedom or influence. As there is no suggestion of the Institute influencing academic programmes, there is no need for additional mitigation beyond our normal practices.”

The institute’s strategic plan outlines the close ties between New Zealand and China, including the launch of the Confucius Institute in 2007, the New Zealand-China free trade agreement, and the FTA upgrade.

It also talks about the possibility for partnerships between the New Zealand government-funded North Asia Centre for Asia Pacific Excellence (CAPE) and the institute to improve Chinese language and cultural pathways from schools to universities.

During the launch event last year, University of Auckland vice-chancellor professor Stuart McCutcheon said since the institute’s launch in 2007 “New Zealand has strengthened political, foreign policy, trade, business, cultural and education connections”.

“Over this time, as our two countries have forged these social and economic connections, the world has changed around us.

“The cool winds of protectionism are blowing and relationships are being tested,” he said.

“It is at times like this that the relationships developed through the common bond of knowledge and people-to-people understanding are more important than ever.”

The opening of the new organisations comes at a time when China’s relations with the world are changing and New Zealand is entering an era described by academics as complicated.

There have also been questions raised over academic freedom, and the risk of influence from the Chinese state in the wake of the Anne-Marie Brady saga.

In a UK paper published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies into the line between Chinese influence and interference, author Charles Parton recommends encouraging universities to insist that Confucius Institute operations were completely transparent, especially their contracts and finances (meaning accounts and all documentation must be in English).

The paper also recommended stopping any institute staff from having a say in university matters or China studies faculties. And universities should also be more alert to, and resist, interference in intellectual debate/freedom, such as attempts to bar topics or speakers, Parton said.

Since the launch event in November, there have been growing tensions in the New Zealand-China relationship, following the GCSB’s decision to follow other Five Eyes countries in rejecting Spark’s proposal to have Chinese company Huawei build its 5G network.

A raft of events, including the postponement of a visit from Chinese dignitaries to officially launch the China-New Zealand year of tourism, the postponement of the Prime Minister’s trip to China, the ramping up of risk notices issued to Chinese tourists, and issues with Salmon shipments at Chinese ports have been interpreted by some as China flexing its muscles in warning.

But Jacinda Ardern maintains the Chinese relationship is in good shape, despite its complexities.

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