Australian state ends Chinese education programme over interference fears

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's most populous state said it will scrap a Chinese-funded education programme that teaches Mandarin in schools amid fears over foreign influence.

The Confucius Institute programme - administered by the Chinese government agency Hanban - teaches China's official language in 13 public schools across New South Wales state.

However, the state government said in a review issued late on Thursday that, while it found no specific evidence of interference, it was improper for the programme to continue.

"The review found, however, a number of specific factors that could give rise to the perception that the Confucius Institute is or could be facilitating inappropriate foreign influence in the department," the state government said in its review.

New South Wales was the only state government worldwide to have such a programme and the arrangement also placed Chinese government appointees inside the state education department, it said.

China began setting up Confucius Institutes in 2004 with the stated mission of satisfying soaring global demand to learn Chinese. But some critics see the institutes as a vehicle for Chinese influence in international higher education.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the cooperation between New South Wales and the Confucius Institute had been open, transparent and lawful, and it played an important role in boosting friendship and understanding.

"New South Wales announced that it would suspend the project without first communicating with China. This is neither respectful nor fair to local people and students. It is not conducive to Sino-Australian cultural exchanges. This is a concern," Geng told a daily news briefing.

"We hope that Australia and New South Wales will respect the Chinese co-organisers, cherish the cooperation results of the two sides, not politicise normal exchange projects, and do more things that are beneficial to China-Australia friendship and mutual trust."

New South Wales Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the programme would be replaced by Mandarin classes run by the state government.

Australia has in recent years sought to increase the teaching of Mandarin in schools in a bid to strengthen ties with its largest trading partner.

However, there has also been growing concern about Chinese activities in Australia, and in the Pacific region, and a souring of relations in recent years.

In 2017, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull accused China of meddling in Australia's domestic affairs. China denied it.

Australia then further alienated China last year when it essentially banned the technology giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from supplying equipment for a 5G mobile network, citing national security risks.

China criticised that decision as being politically motivated and urged Australia to abandon what it described as a Cold War mentality.

Australia has also moved in recent months to push back against China's quest for greater influence in the Pacific.

Australia fears Chinese lending could undermine the sovereignty of small Pacific countries and has moved to increase economic aid and its diplomatic presence in the region.

At the same time, Australia has experienced disruption to its coal exports to China, including customs delays. China denies that Australian trade is being hampered because of bilateral tension.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)