Darwin Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis has denied his decision to sign a “cooperation agreement” between Darwin City Council and a Chinese district was in any way related to his wife’s historic links to the Chinese Government-run Confucius Institute.
- Concern raised over China’s Confucius Institute posing a danger to academic freedom in the NT
- Mayor Kon Vatskalis’s wife’s historic involvement in the institute has been raised as a conflict of interest
- Push for more Chinese money is playing directly into the Chinese Government’s long-term power strategy, says an expert
An Australian academic raised concerns about the influence of the institute within Australian universities, including at the Charles Darwin University campus in Darwin’s northern suburbs.
Associate Professor Feng Chongyi, of the University of Technology in Sydney, said “it is not appropriate to have that sort of operation on the campus in Australia” and any ties to government leaders could be seen as a risk to “political integrity”.
Mr Vatskalis late last month signed a “letter of intent on strengthening cooperation” between his council and the economic powerhouse of Yuexiu District, in Guangzhou, China, “for the purpose of expanding upon the traditional friendship between the two countries and further developing the exchanges and cooperation between the two cities”.
The Australian newspaper reported on the agreement earlier this week and said Chinese “media reports cast [the agreement] as falling within Yuexiu’s One Belt, One Road economic and cultural exchanges”.
The One Belt, One Road Initiative has attracted concern from Australian Government officials who have said it was being used as a strategy to push China’s long-term global influence.
Confucius Institute link ‘a worry’
The Confucius Institute is an education organisation promoting Chinese language and culture run by the Chinese Communist Party, and reportedly designed as a soft power push to promote the policies of President Xi Jinping’s Government.
Mr Vatskalis’s wife Amy Yu-Vatskalis lectures in Mandarin at CDU, and was seconded to the university from Hanban, the Confucius Institute’s Chinese headquarters, in 2012.
While not employed by the Confucius Institute at CDU, Ms Yu-Vatskalis was understood to attend their speeches and events.
Professor Feng said having China-centric Confucius Institute campus within the Northern Territory’s only university posed a risk to “academic freedom, freedom of free speech” and any links to government officials could “compromise political integrity”.
He said Ms Yu-Vatskalis’s historic links to the Confucius Institute were a “worry” and “absolutely” posed a conflict of interest considering her husband’s role as Darwin Lord Mayor.
“If the Government and the family or the relative would work with the Confucius Institute, it will compromise the political integrity of this country,” Professor Feng said.
“It means you are part of the Chinese influence network.”
Mr Vatskalis, still in China and accompanied by his wife, said any claim of a conflict of interest was “nonsense because it’s not”.
“My wife is employed by CDU, my wife teaches Chinese at CDU, Confucius Institute is not connected to CDU … it is there, but it’s a totally different entity.”
His wife’s role on their current China trip was not related to the signing of the agreement, Mr Vatskalis said.
“My wife’s role is to be my wife, and that’s how she came with me [to China], because China is her motherland, she’s got family here,” Mr Vatskalis said.
“My wife is not involved in delegations, and she just came with me in the meetings … she hasn’t got a position in any Chinese company, she’s a lecturer at the Charles Darwin University teaching Chinese, and that’s about it.”
Mr Vatskalis said his wife’s travel to China was self-funded.
A CDU spokesman said Ms Yu-Vatskalis “has never been employed by the Confucius Institute at CDU or had any role within the organisation”.
Soft power at play
Professor Feng said he believed Confucius Institute was part of the Chinese Government’s soft power strategy in the Asia Pacific region and promoted the “oppressive” regime and policies of President Xi Jinping.
“If you look at the bigger picture, the overall big picture of the Chinese Government operation, to establish Confucius Institute is part of the so-called [People’s Republic of China] United Front strategy, to create friendship between Chinese Government and Australian Government, [and] between the Australian public and the Chinese Government,” Professor Feng said.
He also said he thought Mr Vatskalis’s dealings in China, and his public support for furthering relations with the Chinese was playing into the Chinese Government’s long-term strategic plans.
“It will create an environment for the Chinese Government to have harder interest, such like the Darwin Port, and One Belt, One Road initiatives,” he said.
The Darwin Port was leased to Chinese company Landbridge for 99 years in 2015, a move also seen by some academics as a play into China’s long-term strategic aims.
Council ‘may not have understood’
In relation to the letter of intent signed in Yuexiu, Mr Vatskalis said the City of Darwin “was not at pressure to sign anything about the Belt Road Initiative”.
“It’s an issue for the State Government and the Federal Government, I’m staying out of the politics with that,” Mr Vatskalis said.
Michael Shoebridge, the Director of Defence and Strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, also raised questions about the agreement between the Darwin City Council and the Chinese municipality.
He said he was concerned the symbolism of the initiative may not have been fully understood by Darwin’s council.
“The BRI is a signature strategic, political, and economic initiative by the Chinese State as part of trying to establish strategic and economic dominance, that’s what it’s about,” he told ABC Radio Darwin.
The deal was being used symbolically by the Chinese to apply pressure on Australia, he said.
“To say, hey, a part of Australia is supporting BRI – and they’re doing that because they would love to drive a wedge between the different levels of government in Australia, to put pressure on the Federal Government to change its policy.”
Topics: globalisation—economy, politics-and-government, world-politics, local-government, darwin-0800
Lawn Mowing Service