The updated New Zealand-China free trade agreement anticipates doubling the number of language assistants China places in New Zealand schools. Critics warn trade policy will undermine education. Kate MacNamara reports.
Since the ground-breaking New Zealand-China free trade agreement in 2008, the Chinese state has steadily expanded its efforts to teach Mandarin language and Chinese culture in New Zealand schools.
The centrepiece of this effort is the Mandarin Language Assistant (MLA) program, that facilitates the placement of up to 150 teaching assistants across the country. The Herald estimates the cost to the Chinese government was over $3 million in 2019.
That spending, along with the number of MLAs China places in New Zealand schools, is now set to double. Last year negotiations for an update to the New Zealand-China free trade agreement concluded and the cap on MLA visas was raised from 150 to 300 (the agreement must still pass a national interest analysis, be reviewed by Cabinet and passed into law).
The Headquarters of the Confucius Institute, known as Hanban, under the purview of China's Ministry of Education, is responsible for delivering Mandarin language assistants to New Zealand and to a slew of other countries around the world. Its English language webpages describe the program as an effort to "enhance the world's understanding of Chinese language and culture," that fills a void of Chinese teaching expertise abroad.
Supporters in New Zealand say the teaching help is needed to underpin our single most valuable trading partnership: China is our largest export market, and bought more than $20-billion of our goods and services last year. They also say the language skills are needed to help us better engage with the superpower.
Critics, however, call the plan to increase the number of MLAs "disasterous" for the New Zealand education system, which will be further encouraged to outsource language training to a foreign government.
They also warn that the MLAs and the Confucius Institute work should be seen in the larger context of the Chinese Communist Party, indivisible from the Chinese state, and its efforts abroad to "tell China's story well". The Chinese Ministry of Education, they point out, is overseen by the Chinese Communist Pary's Central Propaganda Department.
Alongside partner universities around the world, Hanban jointly funds and operates hundreds of local Confucius Institutes (CIs) globally and three branches in New Zealand, housed within the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury and Victoria University in Wellington. Local branches have some autonomy under the leadership of boards of directors made up equally of the university and Hanban representatives.
Hanban recruits MLAs in China and pays costs including: homestay through the New Zealand school year; a stipend of US$1000 per month; and international travel. Last year, the three local CIs placed 141 MLAs at schools across the country. Numbers are heavily reduced in the current year because of Covid-related travel disruptions.
Local schools cover health insurance, an administrative fee in the region of $600, and some incidental costs. New Zealand's Ministry of Education has very little involvement; it says it partly funds a dozen MLAs annually, to the tune of $98,034, beyond that it does not hold information about the system and referred questions to the CIs.
The second key way China reaches into New Zealand schools is through a programme deployed by local CIs called Confucius Classrooms. There are currently 30 operating across the country. Confucius Classrooms often serve as Chinese language and culture training hubs for clusters of local schools and are used to promote other CI events and programs including MLAs.
Hanban provides Confucius Classroom start-up funds of up to US$10,000, typically spent on equipment and classroom refurbishment, or even the acquisition of extra portable space. The Herald obtained a sample of school Confucius Classroom budgets under the OIA. The programme also provides up to US$10,000 in annual operating funds.
The money is used to fund or subsidise an array of activities, including: professional development and "up-skilling" typically conducted by the CIs; cultural events, including planning, promotion, costumes and food; MLA induction, mentoring and supervision; and, "sister school" student and school principal exchanges involving both travel to China and hosting sister school visits.
Beyond the operating costs, schools can also apply to Hanban for books, audio-visual and multimedia material, on-line Hanban courses, and teacher development material, as well as subsidies for student language camps and for school principals' trips to China.
Trade is driving education policy
The push to promote Mandarin appears to be working. In 2017 the Ministry of Education reported that over 64,000 primary and intermediate aged school children received at least a taste of the language. Close to a third of those students had less than 15 hours of instruction, but the figures were higher than for any other foreign language.
Though the Ministry says data for recent years is unreliable, its numbers suggest that at the secondary level Mandarin language study is also rising even as overall foreign language study is in decline.
Schools themselves often welcome China's help, saying the funds stretch tight Mandarin study budgets and expand teaching capacity, as well as build multicultural awareness. In responding to an OIA request for budget information, Sue Clement, principal at Te Aro School in Wellington, noted that the school's involvement in the Confucius Classroom program has "involved up-skilling a second teacher in teaching a second language and [in] her own knowledge of Mandarin."
"We need the language training to engage with China," said Charles Finny, a trade expert at government relations consultancy Saunders Unsworth, "I'm not concerned about how we get it, though I know there are others who are."
One of them is Duncan Campbell, a longtime specialist in Chinese language and literature affiliated with Victoria University of Wellington. He said the rise in Mandarin instruction is a pyrric victory: "a doubling of Chinese language assistants would destroy our own Chinese language program forever. It would be disastrous."
Estimates put the number of New Zealand-qualified Mandarin teachers at between 150 and 180, including those working part-time (langage assistants are not qualified teachers though many are completing studies in education in China).
Campbell said heavily subsidised Mandarin has also meant that other language programs are cannibalised and become endangered. Japanese and French, still among the most commonly studied foreign languages in New Zealand secondary schools, have both been in decline for at least a decade. Spanish has risen over the period, though the net loss is still significant.
New Zealand education policy does not promote foreign languages. At no level of education is the study required, though secondary schools are obliged to offer a foreign language for optional study.
Through organisations like Alliance Francaise (France), the Goethe-Institut (Germany), and The Japan Foundation, foreign governments have long funded efforts to promote their respective foreign languages and cultures in New Zealand.
However, Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian studies at Victoria University of Wellington, points to a salient difference. China is an authoritarian, single party state, and CI work falls squarely within Chinese Communist Party (CCP) efforts to promote a positive view of China in the world and to nudge public opinion as well as government policy abroad toward favouring its aims.
"There's a phrase used by [leader] Xi Jinping and others, it's 'to tell China's story well' and it sums up a range of CCP efforts that aim to overcome negative views of China: its treatment of ethnic minorities, in Xinjiang for example, the way it curtails freedom of speech, or assembly…the CCP version of China is not the version of China that you'd want to feed directly to school children."
The uncomfortable line between culture and politics
Adele Bryant, director of the CI at the University of Wellington, said demand for CI programs is driven by schools, something that would remain the case under an expanded visa limit for MLAs: "we don't anticipate that we would reach that number  quickly."
In any event, Covid-19 travel restrictions have thrown next year's program into question.
China expert Anne-Marie Brady, professor at the University of Canterbury, said New Zealand should use that pandemic-related pause to rethink, much more broadly, its China policy, including the MLA program.
"What would happen if one of those assistant language teachers got interested in Falun Gong or started going to free Tibet meetings, what would be the response of Hanban?" asks Brady, who has extensively documented CCP political interference in New Zealand, including efforts to control and intimidate New Zealand's ethnic Chinese population.
"The MLA would be sent home," she says, "those MLAs will have signed an agreement before they come about those kinds of matters, there will be topics they will never raise, Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen [Square massacre]..."
Hanban's online description of "volunteer recruitment" (it calls MLAs volunteers) cites, "no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organisations" as a prerequisite. China's sweeping national security laws criminalise a wide range of protest and political dissent.
Chia-Rong Wu, Director of the Confucius Institute at the Univesity of Canterbury, stressed that he is an employee of the University of Canterbury, and MLAs his CI has helped place are free to express personal opinions.
"I won't control them," he said. He also emphasised the need to differentiate, "China as a cultural entity or as a civilization from China a political country in a global network. My position is to promote the culture and language and I will definitely try everything I can to cut the political ties."
There are, however, many ways in which New Zealand's CIs straddle the uncomfortable line between culture and politics. Last year, Vice Consul-General Xiao Yewen made a speech at a workshop in Auckland held for MLAs.
"Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) language exchange is a useful tool for promoting people-to-people contact and cultural exchange," he said, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.
Belt and Road refers to China's controversial foreign and trade policy to invest in and develop infrastructure across the globe. In 2017, China and New Zealand signed a "memorandum of arrangement" to plan toward a Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, however, New Zealand has delayed moving ahead.
Both local CI's in New Zealand and Hanban are undergoing changes. Bryant said her institute is currently rewriting its recently expired agreement with Hanban. The previous agreement stipulated that the local Insititute was "bound to follow the laws and regulations of both New Zealand and China." That language, she said, will be dropped. Auckland CI jettisoned similar language in its updated agreement last year (each local CI operates somewhat differently).
The CIs say Hanban is also being disbanded, with much of its funding transferred to a new "Chinese International Education Foundation," which will receive funds from both government and business. The MLA program is likely to remain with a smaller body affiliated with the education ministry.
The timing may not be coincidental. Criticism of Hanban and CI work generally is on the rise in liberal democracties. In countries ranging from Germany and Sweden to the United States CIs have been closing, and debates around their work have hinged on a familiar puzzle: how to speak China's language without selling out students.