“If an entity or individual hasn’t registered and there’s a reasonable belief that their activities require registration, there’s a range of actions through the secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department which can be taken, up to and including issuing a transparency notice and potential penalties for failing to register,” Mr Porter said in a statement.
The scheme is intended to capture the lawful activities of entities that seek to exert influence in Australia on behalf of foreign powers.
A government source said Confucius Institutes were among the logical first targets of the scheme and would likely be pursued if they did not register voluntarily. As a first step, the secretary of the department could request further information from the organisations. If it is ultimately deemed that they should register, they can be issued with a compulsory transparency notice. They face severe penalties for failing to comply with the new laws.
Hanban also funds Confucius Classrooms in schools. Citing concerns about potential for “inappropriate influences from foreign powers”, the New South Wales Department of Education is reviewing its relationship with Hanban that has seen more than a dozen schools receive funding to run its courses.
A number of universities internationally have shut down their Confucius Institutes in response to growing academic, community and government concerns.
A recent United States Senate report recommended the US Department of Justice probe whether Confucius Institutes should register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the American forerunner to Australia’s framework.
The bipartisan subcommittee report found that Confucius Institutes in the US should close unless they provided “full transparency” about their operations.
John Fitzgerald, a China expert at Swinburne University, said transparency was important for universities’ reputations and they had little to fear from the new foreign influence register.
“Whether this or that program funded by a foreign government advances that government’s national interests is not something universities can decide behind closed doors,” said Professor Fitzgerald.
Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said Confucius Institutes were an extension of the Chinese government, which exerted strict control of the activities at the facilities.
“If the [foreign influence transparency scheme] is serious enough, Confucius Institutes definitely fall into that category,” Dr Feng said.
Hanban and the Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to requests for comment.
Some other university-based facilities have voluntarily registered under the scheme, with the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney lodging their relationships with foreign governments.
The UTS-based Australia-China Relations Institute, whose outgoing director is former foreign minister Bob Carr, rejected suggestions its financial and organisational links with foreign entities meant it should register under the scheme.
“UTS does not consider any of its activities, including those of ACRI, to be registrable under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, but will continue to monitor this over time,” said a spokesman.
Universities with Confucius Institutes
- Queensland University of Technology
- Griffith University
- University of Queensland
- University of New South Wales
- University of Newcastle
- University of Sydney
- Charles Darwin University
- University of Adelaide
- La Trobe University
- University of Melbourne
- Victoria University
- University of Western Australia
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.