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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Minglu Chen, Senior Lecturer, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

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As the past few years have illustrated so clearly, the Australia-China relationship is complicated. As such, it is crucial for Australians to develop a more nuanced understanding of China as this will help foster better engagement between our two countries.

This is why it’s important to gauge how China is being taught in our higher education system.

This is the focus of our new research project, Teaching China in Australia. Building on research by the Australian Academy of the Humanities last year, we have collected and analysed the descriptions of all China-related courses published on the websites of 27 Australian universities.

Our aim is to understand how knowledge about China is being constructed and disseminated to students in Australian universities.

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What we looked at

First, we identified 442 undergraduate and 164 postgraduate China-focused courses offered at Australian universities. Among them, Chinese language and translation courses are the most prominent. These make up 237 (53.6%) of undergraduate and 39 (23.8%) of postgraduate subjects.

But we also found universities cover a wide array of disciplines in their teaching of China, including politics, economics, law, history, literature, Chinese medicine and music.

We then narrowed our scope to examine only the “China studies” courses. Following the definition from a leading scholarly journal in the field, The China Quarterly, China studies include anthropology, sociology, literature and the arts, business and economics, geography, history, international affairs, law and politics.

Using this definition, we specifically looked at 157 (35.5%) of the undergraduate courses and 74 (45.1%) of the postgraduate courses.

A focus on threats

One of the first things we noticed was that in Australian lecture halls “China” often refers to the People’s Republic of China under Chinese Communist Party rule. Few courses explicitly focus on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or overseas Chinese communities outside mainland China, even though the cultural roots of many Chinese Australians are in these areas.

In terms of time frames, the overwhelming majority of Chinese literature, history and philosophy courses focus on China from the beginning of the 20th century. Often, the starting point is 1949 (the founding of the People’s Republic of China) or 1978 (the start of the economic reform era).

The course descriptions also suggest different disciplines approach China in different ways.

The courses in economics, business and law often underscore the significance of commerce and trade in Sino-Australian relations. These courses see China as a trade partner, a market and an investment destination for Australians. Students who take these courses are being prepared for a future where they will work in or with China.

A good example is a postgraduate course on how international business is regulated in China. The course description emphasises its importance for those entering the field as they “will find that their legal practice or business involves China and, hence, Chinese regulation”.

But the teaching of China in disciplines such as politics, international relations and communications often does not have a practical approach for future policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders.

Significantly, China is also not presented to students as a potential partner that Australia can work with. Rather, it is often viewed as a threat or a problem to be addressed. This is particularly evident in international relations courses, where China is often depicted as a “rising power” that is the source of “emerging tensions” and “increased competitiveness”.

Some of these courses even go so far as to describe the current world order as “cold war” between China and the West. This perception naturally leads to the supposition China’s rise poses a threat to Australia’s national security. One course even asks whether “war is an inevitability”.

However, it is important to note that, in these courses, the implications of China’s rise for Australia are often linked to the United States. In fact, we did not identity a single course in Australian universities that focuses strictly on the China-Australia relationship on its own.

Viewing China’s problems in isolation

Some politics, society and media courses – in addition to multidisciplinary contemporary China courses – do not see China from a geopolitical perspective. Instead, they are often issues-driven courses with a focus on topics such as gender inequality, ethnic tensions, environmental degradation and social injustice.

This approach emphasises the impact of such issues on the Communist Party’s rule. One course even explores “signs of political liberalisation and democratisation” in China.

Again, these types of classes are not providing young Australians with the knowledge they need to manage their country’s most complicated bilateral relationship. Aspiring business people and lawyers are taught how to trade with and invest in China. However, our future politicians, policymakers and journalists are not instructed with the same practical approach.

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This does not adequately equip these young people with the wisdom they will need to effectively advance both the economic and strategic interests of Australia when engaging with China. Rather, it has the potential to lead to more friction and conflicts.

In addition, when examining China’s domestic issues in isolation – solely focusing on the connection to the country’s authoritarian rulers – we lose perspective. Specifically, all societies, including Australia, share many of the challenges facing China.

A comparative approach is more effective to help students find solutions for Australia’s own problems, as well as identify possible ways for our two nations to collaborate on global challenges, such as climate change.

Academic research on Australia-China relations has already moved beyond the limited understanding of China as an economic partner or potential security threat. As scholars of China’s politics and society ourselves, we have long tried to provide a more nuanced understanding of China.

Yet the students at our universities are receiving a far more simplistic – and less nuanced – education.

The Conversation

Minglu Chen receives funding from the China Studies Centre, the University of Sydney.

Bingqin Li is the chair of East Asian Social Policy Research Network and external reviewer of the China Studies program at Hong Kong University.

Edward Sing Yue Chan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. How is China being taught at Australian universities? And why does this matter? Here’s what our research found –