Documents obtained by The Australian reveal that Victoria University (VU) cancelled a film screening that was critical of the Chinese state-backed Confucius Institutes after the local Chinese Consulate sought “feedback” on the event.
According to the report, the cancellation occurred after details of the screening were passed onto consulate officials after concerns were raised by the international director of Victoria University’s Confucius Institute, Professor Colin Clark.
In an email sent to the university’s facilities department on Sept. 7, Clark wrote, “I would like to talk to you about a facilities booking from the public that will become a problem for us.”
Three days later on Sept. 10, Clark received an email from Claire Wang, the Chinese director of Victoria University’s Confucius Institute, with instructions on who to contact at the university, information detailing the interests of the Chinese Consulate in the event, and further details of the event. Wang is also a Chinese diplomat, according to The Australian.
Wang wrote, “I have found out the room booking details for the Sept. 21 event at VU … I have called (the) room booking department as well. The General Consulate is awaiting our feedback on this.”
Clark then emailed business operations manager Adrian Wong to ask, “Can we discuss?” Included in the email were instructions from Wang.
Hours later, Clark told facilities staff that he would make a “formal communication” to have the event stopped. The screening was cancelled the next day, Sept. 11.
An Unexpected Cancellation
Leigh Smith, organiser of the event, said that she got a phone call on Sept. 11, from the director of facilities, stating that her booking had been cancelled.
“I got a phone call from the director of facilities, not the booking agent. I couldn’t believe it,” said Smith.
“How could you cancel my booking? It’s already paid for. It’s only 10 days away from our screening,” she said.
On inquiring whether another room was available, Smith was told that “everything is booked. It’s double booked, it was a mistake.”
However, on the day of the screening, The Epoch Times discovered that four of the university’s theatres were empty—including the one that was originally booked.
VU later changed its explanation for cancelling the event, labelling the event as a “marketing stunt” because the film, “In The Name of Confucius,” was to be shown in the same building that has a Confucius Institute.
Event organiser, Leigh Smith, told The Australian, “I knew Victoria University had a Confucius Institute, but I didn’t know it was in that building … this is the first time I’ve ever heard they thought it was a stunt.”
Smith has previously hosted similar events at VU.
In an email, a spokesperson for VU said that the university was willing to facilitate another screening of the film as well as a discussion panel on the merits of Confucius Institutes but the organiser had withdrawn a request for a make-up screening.
When asked if this was true, Smith told The Epoch Times that VU had never contacted her with the offer of another lecture theatre or informed her of their willingness to appear on a panel.
“VU Director of Facilities had not answered my two emails requesting clarity on the reasons and possible alternative times to screen the film,” she said. “I phoned the booking clerk, off the record, to discuss the reasons our booking was cancelled. I never rang back to attempt a booking.”
Academic Freedom in Question
David Matas, an international human rights lawyer, who was scheduled to speak at the event, said that the cancellation highlights how the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has political influence over institutions that host Confucius Institutes. “This cancellation was a demonstration of the very point that we’re trying to make through this event,” Matas said.
Paul Monk, former head of China analysis for Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation, told The Epoch Times on Dec. 4, that having educational curriculum set by Beijing, as in the case of Confucius Institutes, creates difficulties; difficulties in dealings with Beijing, in strategy, in macro economics and in discussions with human rights.
“[T]oo many of our public intellectuals and academics, too many of our academic administrators, too many of our businesspeople don’t want to even look at that problem,” Monk added.
In cancelling the screening that was critical of Confucius Institutes, “[t]he university abrogated it’s own autonomy and standards and it excluded freedom of speech discussion on a matter of sensitivity in a university,” Monk said.
According to Dr. Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at Sydney’s University of Technology, Confucius Institutes “have created an institutional condition and political imperative for censorship,” by the Chinese Regime and Australian university authorities.
Public ethics professor at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Clive Hamilton, said that Western universities have a commitment to exposing the truth as they are supposed to be built on the principle of academic freedom.
“Some universities, including Victoria University, have shown that money is more valuable to them than free speech. Those responsible for censoring free speech on the campus should be held to account.”
“This incident shows again how the hidden influence of the Chinese Communist Party has spread into all of Australia’s institutions,” Hamilton said.