The private charitable trust which runs New Zealand Chinese Language Week receives sizeable donations from China’s Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) to encourage New Zealanders to “give Chinese a go”. Eda Tang reports.
New Zealand Chinese Language Week just ended but, in its ninth year, some are raising concerns about its funding sources and what it represents.
Wellington man Jack Yan is one of the voices in the Chinese New Zealand community concerned that the week is bringing the practices of the Chinese Communist Party to Aotearoa.
China’s Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) is an education institution affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education and the Chinese Communist Party.
“The idea is to propagate a colonial mindset that is prevalent in China… when it’s really no business of theirs to do it here,” said Yan.
“It’s a concern that that money is being used to prop up a policy that’s got nothing to do with us.”
In 2022, the New Zealand Chinese Language Week Trust received $205,601 from CLEC, the largest disclosed sum to date and more than double what it received from CLEC in 2020.
The trust did not disclose how much it was funded by CLEC from 2016 to 2019 and would not provide sponsorship amounts for this year’s sponsors, which include CLEC, previously known as Hanban.
However, the trust did say it would receive “around $400,000” this year in funding and in-kind support.
CLEC changed its name from Hanban following what’s known as the Braga incident in 2014, when, at the European Association for Chinese Studies conference, Hanban director-general Xu Lin ordered her staff to rip out pages in the programme referring to Taiwanese academic institutions.
NZCLW chair Jo Coughlan told Stuff via email that NZCLW was under no obligations to the CLEC, and she had no concerns about receiving funding from it.
“Universities and schools have had a longstanding relationship with Hanban and CLEC through the Confucius Institutes and the Mandarin Language Assistant programme. The New Zealand Government has recently hosted a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Education including representatives from CLEC.”
She added that “the Trust follows New Zealand law and complies with the Charities Act 2005”.
But Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said as a result of the funding, NZCLW was “almost certainly obliged to follow the Chinese government’s positions on Chinese language and culture, and the status of Chinese languages other than Mandarin”.
“Even though it says that CLEC is a public organisation, that is not really true. The party controls all these kinds of organisations.
“This is the Chinese government’s goal in funding the promotion of Chinese culture and language overseas, to control the narrative and make sure that non-Chinese understand Chinese language and culture only in the way the Chinese government wishes them to.”
Churchman said that while the Chinese Communist Party does not support or promote non-Mandarin Chinese languages in China, “that doesn’t mean we have to not respect them here”.
In the trust’s newsletters this year, it was outlined that “the primary focus of NZ Chinese Language Week is on Mandarin language learning as Mandarin is the most widely spoken Chinese language in the world”.
Many Chinese New Zealanders speak or whakapapa to different Chinese languages, languages that are being curbed off by the Chinese government’s expansion of Mandarin dominance.
Language Laws of the People’s Republic of China
“What the Chinese Language Week does is it excludes local Chinese from it. It uses the name ‘language week’ that all the other language weeks have, and takes it out of the hands of the community,” Churchman says.
Origins of NZ Chinese Language Week
As well as chairing the NZCLW Trust, Coughlan owns external consultancy Silvereye Communications, which is contracted to run the week’s operations.
Coughlan said her dual role was not a conflict of interest.
Her association with the trust began in 2014 when Raymond Huo, a Labour MP at the time, invited her to co-chair the NZCLW Trust with him after she led and participated in delegations to China as a Wellington City councillor. She has remained in the position ever since.
Huo retired from his parliamentary career in 2020.
When Huo left the trust in 2022, Labour MP Naisi Chen took his place. Since then, she has been the only Chinese person on a board of seven.
Coughlan said she was drawn to the kaupapa because “encouragement for young New Zealanders to learn foreign languages is helpful in a diverse and changing world”.
She said while travelling on business delegations, she “had little experience of language and culture of our largest trading partner”.
Coughlan does not speak any Chinese. She understands Chinese culture to be “a manifestation of ideas, customs and social behaviour of a people or society”.
She said that most of the board members speak Chinese.
When subsequently asked who the Chinese-speaking board members were, the following response was supplied: “The seven trustees include a former NZ Ambassador to China who had full language training in the mid-1970s, a Chair Professor of Chinese, a long-standing member of the New Zealand China Friendship Society and a Member of Parliament who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese.” No names were forthcoming.
Coughlan said the week was “not a government initiative or a Chinese community initiative – it is run by a private charitable trust whose aim is simply to encourage New Zealanders to ‘give Chinese a go’”.
Shortly after the NZCLW was established, Huo said “treating Mandarin, Yue [Cantonese] or other Chinese dialects as independent languages is deeply flawed”, a position critics say repeats CCP talking points.
“In China, they don’t ever teach the word Mandarin. They teach the word Chinese because they don’t want people to realise that there’s a difference,” said Churchman.
The Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language, which has been effective since 2001, defines Pǔtōnghuà (Mandarin) as the national language over the hundreds of other Chinese languages.
In its 2017 performance report, one of the NZCLW Trust’s key deliverables was to have both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers recorded as “Chinese” speakers in official statistics, a move critics describe as “erasure” of culturally important language differences.
“This is an ongoing commitment on part of the NZCLW Trust. All NZCLW communication has used the general terminology ‘Chinese language’ without differentiation between Chinese Mandarin and Chinese Cantonese,” the report read.
Coughlan now says, “on further consideration, the Trustees decided not to pursue this… and the Trust has never made any approach to Statistics NZ.” Stuff confirmed this with Statistics NZ.
During a trust meeting in November 2022, the trustees reviewed the name of the week and agreed to keep it the same. “It is simple and well understood – it can reflect all Chinese languages spoken,” said Coughlan.
Local funding sources
This year, the trust received $30,000 from the Ministry for Ethnic Communities after requesting $450,000.
The Ethnic Communities Development Fund is designed to support the ministry’s priorities which include connecting and uplifting ethnic community groups.
In its funding application, the trust said that an intended outcome was “the celebration of inclusion and diversity in our communities.
“Embracing our ethnic communities creates a sense of belonging, understanding, and wellbeing. NZCLW’s work builds on this every year, closing cultural gaps by bringing everyone together for a week of Chinese celebrations.”
In the same application, it said “the intention is to use the most widely spoken Chinese language as a window to learning about wider Chinese culture and languages. Mandarin Chinese is that language.
“While the Trust’s focus is on Mandarin as the language most widely accessible to New Zealanders, it supports all Chinese languages and actively welcomes the inclusion of Cantonese, Hakka and others.”
Coughlan said “we welcome and encourage participation to reflect [the many Chinese languages and dialects]”.
But Yan still has his doubts.
“If you’re going to be inclusive, don’t say we only focus on one [language] because that’s the one that’s officially taught,” he said.
“That’s not promoting the Chinese community, that’s not making us feel welcome. It’s making us feel excluded…”
Extra content has been added to the story. (Amended at 10.23am, October 11, 2023.)