As New Zealand prepares to welcome hundreds of language teachers from China, some academics are increasingly uncomfortable about the way in which the Chinese government is gaining direct access to New Zealand classrooms.
Mandarin Language Assistants, or MLAs have been in Aotearoa for years, the recently updated Free Trade Agreement contained a clause doubling the number of teachers to 300 a year.
The next group of young MLAs, many of whom are effectively on their Big OE, are set to arrive in January 2023.
MLAs teach “language and culture” in NZ primary, intermediate and secondary schools where Mandarin is now the most common foreign language taught.
The system is organised by three Confucius Institutes in New Zealand – part of a network of 500 such institutes worldwide.
However, several other countries are now looking to close their Confucius Institutes, with UK PM Rishi Sunak the most recent to advance those plans.
Although there is no direct evidence of political interference by MLAs in Kiwi classrooms, Duncan Campbell, a lecturer in Chinese at Victoria University, said it is “inexcusable” to outsource the teaching.
“I think we’re creating the possibilities for very toxic engagement in our school system.”
He also questioned the decision to embed the Confucius Institutes within universities across New Zealand, describing it as a “grave mistake”.
“They don’t engage in research, their teaching is focussed on the school system," said Campbell, adding their presence “opens us up to unnecessary critique”.
Dr Catherine Churchman, who lectures in Asian Studies at Victoria University would prefer to see Chinese Kiwi take over the teaching.
“So they are learning things New Zealanders need to learn about China, rather than the things the Chinese government wants us to learn about China.”
“I think the point of [the current arrangement] is to make sure that children’s first contact with Chinese is conducted in a manner that the state approves of, the Chinese state, approves of.”
Wellington Chinese community member Jack Yan said more New Zealanders learning another language and being multi-lingual is a good thing, but he’s concerned about the emphasis and resourcing put into Mandarin at the exclusion of other Chinese languages such as Cantonese.
He wants to ensure that New Zealand's Cantonese history is not ignored.
“We want them to be aware, the teachers to be aware there is a history here that is distinct from the official Communist Party line that they may be pushing.”
Q + A wanted to speak with the Confucius Institute, but their spokesperson was overseas.