The Chinese Communist Party’s use of Chinese Language Schools to spread its propaganda must be stopped, argues proud immigrant and former federal politician Gladys Liu.
That the textbooks used by most taxpayer-funded community Chinese schools are published and provided for free by the government of the People’s Republic of China is not a secret. It is also well known, for those who care to look, that principals and teachers at community language schools in Victoria are not required to have teaching qualifications from the Victorian Institute of Teaching, nor do they have to be Australian citizens or even permanent residents.
Having served as the Federal Member for Chisholm—a pivotal multicultural community—and as a proud immigrant to this country from Hong Kong, I have witnessed at first hand the complexities of immigrant identity and integration in Australia. Born as I was in Hong Kong, and a proud businesswoman, mother, and classical liberal, it pains me to see vulnerable young Chinese Australians being fed misleading narratives about the glories of mainland China while the positives of Australia’s civic tradition fall by the educational wayside.
Let me be clear: China is a remarkable country with a rich history. But too many Chinese weekend schools teach a distorted view of history that subtly indoctrinates its students to feel greater allegiance to today’s Chinese mainland—the China dominated by an anti-Western, anti-democratic, anti-liberal ruling class—than to Australia’s traditions and values.
Australia is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Over the last 50 years, successive governments from both sides of politics have provided bipartisan support for multiculturalism and multilingualism. More than 300 languages are spoken in Australia, and in the 2021 Census about 23 per cent of respondents reported speaking a language other than English at home. The top five languages used at home, after English, were Mandarin (2.7 per cent), Arabic (1.4 per cent), Vietnamese (1.3 per cent), Cantonese (1.2 per cent), and Punjabi (0.9 per cent). That most migrants from diverse backgrounds would want their children to maintain their language use to ensure intergenerational communication and stay connected to their heritage is completely understandable. For many parents, as well as continuing the use of their native language at home, sending their children to schools to study the language is a common practice.
COMMUNITY LANGUAGE SCHOOLS
In Victoria, there are three main ways that school-age children can learn a language other than English (LOTE): day schools, Victorian School of Languages (VSL), and community language schools (CLSs). Undoubtedly, the Department of Education and Training (DET) has established appropriate curricula for LOTE teaching and learning in all settings.
A foreign power providing and paying for teaching materials presents obvious cause for concern.
That said, it is almost impossible for the authorities to monitor the implementation of these curricula unless they understand the language they are overseeing. And when the teaching materials used are provided and paid for by a foreign power, this presents obvious cause for concern.
LOTE teaching at day schools (primary and secondary) and at VSL classes are governed by stricter standards and rely on textbooks sourced locally. But when we turn our attention to CLSs, a different picture emerges. In Australia, more than 1000 CLSs provide language learning in 69 languages to more than 100,000 school-age children. Often, they do not have their own premises, and rent or borrow mainstream schools’ campuses and classrooms. These classes typically take place on weekends: an extra day of school for the students.
Community language schools are funded by the federal and State governments, and parents usually pay fees to supplement their operations. The overwhelming majority of the students are enrolled by parents who speak that language at home. What language children should learn is primarily a parental identity practice. Most of these parents believe it is important for their children to learn more about their culture and roots, and so rely on community language schools to cultivate identity and a sense of ancestral origins in their children.
These textbooks are part of a political campaign of indoctrination through education.
But how do Chinese community language schools shape Chinese Australian children’s sense of identity? Apart from a small number of Chinese CLSs operated by migrants from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan, most are run by migrants from the People’s Republic of China. Due to the high number of enrolments, the number of teachers teaching Chinese CLSs outnumbers those teaching other languages. Currently, there are more than 800 Chinese teachers at Chinese CLSs in Victoria and most of them are migrants or visa holders from China. The ‘2020 Community Languages Australia Parent Project Report’, conducted by the Faculty of Education at Monash University, cited concerns in CLSs relating to the lack of sufficiently trained educators and administrative staff as well as poor choice of teaching materials and books.
This finding should not come as a surprise as administrators and teachers of CLSs do not require expertise or a background in education. CLSs are not-for-profit, community-based organisations. Principals and teachers do not need Victorian Institute of Teaching registration or provisional registration. These school principals—who steer the ship of education—are mostly well-intentioned people who want to preserve their language and culture. But what if they are not well-intentioned? What if they use materials that present a distorted view of culture and history?
MANUFACTURING CHINESE CONSENT
Unlike standard day schools or the VLS, there is no requirement for CLS teachers to be Australian citizens or permanent residents. Dr Jane Orton wrote in her ‘ChinaReport’ in 2008: “The teaching and learning of Chinese in Australia is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese”. Although this comment drew backlash at the time from Australia’s Chinese community—because Chinese Australian children were not designated as ‘Australians’—it highlighted a real risk: Chinese teachers shifting Chinese Australian children’s sense of identity from an Australian to a Chinese one.
To try ensure cultural appropriateness, DET developed templates and guidelines for all CLSs to prepare their teaching materials. For all languages the guidelines stipulate that teaching should use references to Australia and local activities in their examples. In the guide to Chinese Foundation – Level 6 curriculum, it gives the following example (the sentence here quoted, and all following, are my own translations from Mandarin into English) as demonstration: “I think Australia is a very good country.”
However, when you examine the Chinese textbooks used in practice, a very different story is revealed. Chinese textbooks used by more than 80 per cent of Chinese CLSs were developed by and received for free from the Chinese Embassy or the Chinese Consulate General. Zhongwen (Chinese Language) course materials were written by the College of Chinese Language and Culture, Jinan University, and commissioned by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. OCAO is a government division responsible for drafting and implementing overseas Chinese policy. As it happens, the Chief Editor of Zhongwen was a militant of the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s and a party official of OCAO.
The preface to the Zhongwen textbook states it aims to enable students to acquire basic listening, speaking, reading, and writing capabilities in Mandarin Chinese through a process of learning and training, and to expose students to Chinese culture to lay a solid ground for their further study. What it does not tell you is that these textbooks are part of a political campaign of indoctrination through education, extended to target overseas Chinese.
Very often, the contents of these textbooks refer to people, events, and places in ancient or modern China, rather than Australia—in contravention of the DET directives. ‘Patriotism towards China’ is a central theme that appears repeatedly in Zhongwen. It affirms students’ Chinese identity. It teaches students to feel proud of China and its achievements. Instead of using references to Australia and local activities, these textbooks consistently use stories and sample sentences that serve to pull students closer to the ‘motherland’.
In teaching the use of words like “prosperous” and “make … contributions”, Zhongwen use the following sentences: “Every overseas Chinese wishes his motherland to be prosperous and strong” and “He made great contributions to the motherland’s prosperity”. These examples might seem innocent enough on their own, but that is just the beginning. The texts and stories constantly emphasise ‘Chineseness’ as a distinct way of looking at the world. As Chinese premier Li Keqiang has openly reminded overseas Chinese, feelings of love for the motherland are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry, no matter how long ago their ancestors left the Chinese mainland. Beyond praise of the motherland, the text also talks about how proud students should be of particular members of the People’s Liberation Army:
Fei Junlong and Nie Hai, with the rank of colonel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are third-level astronauts of the Astronaut Brigade … We are proud of the new achievements of the astronauts.
Time and again Zhongwen presents the view of history as given by the Communist Party of the People’s Republic, not the perspective of Australia or other liberal democracies. Its use of facts and assumptions are antithetical to the ideas on which our domestic and international policies are based, thereby undermining Australian Chinese students’ ability to feel and become fully Australian.
Needless to say, the view of international politics and history presented assumes the point of view of today’s Chinese government. The Zhongwen claims that historically Taiwan has always been and remains a province of China. Note these three examples:
Located in the south-eastern waters of China, Taiwan is China’s largest island … Since ancient times, Taiwan has been China’s sacred territory. Beautiful Taiwan is China’s Treasure Island. China’s largest island – Taiwan.
But the subliminal propaganda is enforced as much by what is not said as by what is. Straightforward factual descriptions of the kind that no one would contest are given as cover for the blatant omission of facts that run against the preferred narrative of the Chinese government. Take this description of Hong Kong, which no one would find objectionable as a description of its governmental status (at least until recent years):
Hong Kong is now a special administrative region of China, with one country two systems, Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong, with a high degree of autonomy.
Unsurprisingly, the texts do not mention democratic demonstrations in Hong Kong, nor the enforcement of a national security law that has essentially broken the ‘one country two systems’ commitment. By painting an incomplete picture, Zhongwen cultivates a benign view of the Chinese regime. If Chinese Australian children do not know the facts about Hong Kong or Taiwan, when conflict breaks out, they will be more likely to share sympathy with the Chinese government.
In Australia and most of the free world, when people hear the name ‘Tiananmen’, the 1989 massacre is probably the one thing that comes to their minds. But you will find no mention of that inconvenient association in the following laudatory description:
In China, many children can sing the song “I Love Beijing Tiananmen”. Tiananmen is the symbol of the People’s Republic of China. It stands in the centre of Beijing City, the northern end of Tiananmen Square, resplendent and majestic. The solemn national emblem hanging on the tall tower is awe-inspiring. On October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong announced the birth of the People’s Republic of China to the world on the
Tiananmen Tower … How proud is Tiananmen as a symbol of great China!
And while the sins of the Chinese government are erased from the record, examples from British and American history tend to emphasise their aggression towards others.
In January 1841, a British warship carrying more than 2000 British soldiers attacked the Humen Fortress. More than 600 Chinese navies in the first line of defence of the fort were all killed under the powerful artillery fire of the British army.
Great American cultural figures like Walt Whitman are invoked only as critics of the dark side of America—or to suggest an affinity with communist ideology:
Whitman continued writing articles against slavery and against employer exploitation. In the late 1840s he joined the Free Land Party, opposed slavery in the United States, and advocated land reform.
It is not always political, as the text affords nicer words to some countries than others:
London – Situated in the south-east of England, weather is always gloomy and rainy, except in summer.
The Volga River soothes the vast land of Russia, nurtures millions of people, and creates countless prosperous cities.
Do not get me wrong, the content of Zhongwen and associated teaching materials do often also contain a high degree of universal truth. That is why many parents and teachers alike do not suspect or question them. It is a very clever way of subtly instilling propaganda into the minds of young Chinese Australians and fostering a sense of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party over and above their loyalty to Australia, our liberal democratic institutions, and our way of life.
In his 2022 National Day Rally Speech, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Our Chinese community is clear about our national interests, because we have developed a deeper sense of national identity and greater confidence in our culture.”
In similar fashion, I believe that the Chinese community in Australia is clear about our national interests and have developed a deep sense of national identity. All Chinese migrants made the choice of uprooting themselves to settle in this beautiful country for the betterment of themselves and their children. While we champion multiculturism and encourage Chinese migrants to embrace and pass on their language and culture to their children, it is vital that we protect these children from indoctrination by Chinese CLSs.
Being a Chinese migrant myself, I cherish the opportunity my children have in learning Chinese, and I want them to be proud of their ethnic identity. However, ethnic identity should never override our national identity. A distinct ethnic minority appearance and the perceived different culture of being Chinese have already been challenging things for Chinese Australian children to negotiate. Confusing children’s sense of identity implicitly or explicitly in CLSs is not only unhelpful – it’s simply wrong.
While there is no evidence that Chinese CLSs are under direct control of the Chinese government in influencing students’ identity practice, it is a concern when a significant number of the school principals and teachers—who are mostly Chinese-born and raised—do not identify their primary allegiance with Australia. It also puzzles me that taxpayer-funded Chinese language classes are using textbooks published and gifted by a foreign government, which is proud to run its own patriotic education campaign in our classrooms. It is no wonder that some parents have opted to take their children out of these schools and instead pay for private tuition, or simply forfeit their children’s opportunity to learn Chinese.
To start a CLS and apply for government funding, the CLS must obtain accreditation from the Department of Education and Training. As well as the current requirement of submitting a sample unit of work or a broad scope and sequence overview of the year’s curriculum, the Department should make sure they have a thorough understanding of the principal’s credential and values. It should also ensure teachers have at least Certificate IV language teaching training and visa status. The Department should deny an application for accreditation—and cancel existing accreditations—if the CLS commits acts regarded by the public as unacceptable.
Textbooks published and gifted by a foreign government should be banned. Many Chinese language materials imported from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China are sold at bookshops, but locally published textbooks are the safest, best option. The Australian government should set up a grant to support local textbooks. It is more important than ever to be clear about our values and ensure they are not being covertly compromised by a foreign power that is increasingly antagonistic to them. I was proud to become Australian by choice, and no Chinese Australian child should be subjected to propaganda that seeks to replace love of Australia with the love of a false ‘motherland’.
Gladys Liu was the Liberal Party member for Chisholm in Victoria from May 2019 until May 2022. Born in Hong Kong, Liu emigrated to Australia in 1985 to study Speech Pathology at La Trobe University, and worked for the Victorian Education Department for 14 years. She became an Australian citizen in April 1992.