The Sydney University of Technology’s Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) is seeking further donations from Chinese corporations as it seeks to water down the controversial $1.8 million start-up gift from controversial Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo and his Yuhu Group.

Huang recently resigned from the board of the institute he effectively founded after a “major review”, but it’s just as likely the public spotlight was too bright after it was revealed he had donated money to Labor Senator Sam Dastyari.

ACRI, which is headed by the Gillard government’s second foreign minister and long-serving New South Wales premier Bob Carr, is already supported by a clutch of Australian companies that is a who’s who of corporate Australia with vested interests in the Middle Kingdom. These companies include Rio Tinto, Macquarie, BHP Billiton, KMPG, Deloitte, Qantas — you get the drift.

But ACRI deputy director, economics professor James Laurenceson told Crikey that the group was looking for more sponsorship from corporates and that Chinese companies were the primary targets for now.

“As you might expect, the Australia-China Relations Institute is seeking to deepen and diversify its overall funding model with both Australian and Chinese sources. That’s what we have been doing, and it’s what we’ll continue to do,” Laurenceson said.

He confirmed that ACRI had taken a range of journalists including The Australian’s senior business writer Glenda Korporaal and The Australian Financial Review columnist Michael Smith on (separate) trips to China.

Laurenceson added: “The key point is not whether the money comes from an Australian or Chinese source but the fact that it enters the university as a donation, which means ACRI has independence in how the funds are used. Universities have a long track record of tapping external sources of funding and having in place policies and procedures to manage the associated risks.”

But are they managing those risks?

ACRI is just the latest public example of China’s multibillion-dollar global program of soft power, some of which has been focused on Australia’s — and indeed the world’s — universities.

[Political donations but one of many weapons in China’s arsenal]

Already there are 14 Confucius Institutes in Australian tertiary institutions, among almost 500 worldwide. They are run by the Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban, which is part of the Communist Party’s vast and intricate infrastructure.

Unlike other cultural institutes such as France’s Alliance Francais and Germany’s Goethe Institute, the Confucius Institutes operate with universities and provide funds for premises teachers and courses.

“China began its own exploration through establishing non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries in 2004: these were given the name the Confucius Institute,” the Hanban website notes.

Just as Australia’s universities have been forced more quickly than their peers offshore to turn to large cohorts of foreign students, they were also among the first in the West to eagerly accept Confucius Institutes.

And unlike their peers in the US, Canada and Europe, none have yet had second thoughts. A few years back, many institutions in other countries began to unwind their deals with the Communist Party machine, concerned about the influence it might be wielding — but not so in Australia.

In response, the Communist Party-run China Daily said last October: “Some people apparently need a new pair of corrective lenses to help them see the institutes in a more objective and impartial way.”

With no judgement at all on any ill intent of the Confucius Institutes, can you imagine the political party of another country — Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, for example, or Hamas — paying for an institution inside a public Australian university to push its country’s culture being accepted without public outcry? Who can forget the screams about the proposed “Consensus Centre” run by climate change sceptic Bjorn Lomborg? The fact that Confucius Institutes barely raise eyebrows underscores the power of the CCP’s soft power.

And of course, as we at Crikey have noted before, soft power comes in many forms, especially through that which has bought the entire issue into public focus: political donations.

Huang’s Yuhu was clearly paying for influence in donating to Sam Dastyari, so we must ask: how is ACRI any different?

“With their expanding economic influence and education, Chinese Australians are increasingly enthusiastic about political affairs. Chinese have made more donations to Australian political parties and are paying increasing attention to general and local elections in recent years,” Huang wrote in a telling commentary for Global Times.

To wit, the hapless Dastyari is just the latest in the conga-line of Australian politicians and political parties (although probably not One Nation) to happily trouser or bag wads of Chinese money, unbothered whence it has come. Almost forgotten is Malcolm Turnbull’s February sacking of Stuart Robert from his ministry for taking blandishments — in the form of travel — to China.

[Chinese largesse taints all, Dasher just a cog in the machine]

Carr himself, would you believe, has been accused of peddling a pro-Beijing line in the latest and most bewildering of his incarnations.

Carr defended himself from as series of attacks in The Australian in recent weeks, in particular a piece by Sharri Markson based on an account from Peter Jennings, the chief of the Australian Strategic Public Institute. Carr wrote in The Australian:

“In Beijing in May 2012, then foreign minister Yang Jiechi criticised the rotation of US marines in Darwin. I told him bluntly the US alliance was in Australia’s DNA, part of our history. It’s in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade record.

“In mid-2012, Julia Gillard was proposing annual dialogues with Chinese leaders. The Chinese seemed to enjoy keeping us waiting for a response. I said we were relaxed. The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan wrote on August 23: ‘This is the right tone for Canberra with Beijing — positive, constructive but ultimately unruffled and un-intimidated.’ According to another diary entry, I was even ready to treat the relationship with ‘benign neglect’.”

Indeed, this last comment is true. During Julia Gillard’s April 2013 caravan to China, Carr, who was foreign minister, spent much of his time in conversations with myself and Beijing- and Shanghai-based correspondents at the time. He was on the outer with Gillard and the other travelling ministers, Craig Emerson and Bill Shorten, after backing Palestine against Israel in a cabinet vote.

During those conversations he showed this “benign neglect”, evincing only a perfunctory interest in China that veered close to cultivated disdain. Instead, he preferred to talk about America and its recent political history, one of his pet topics.

His conversion has been Damascene.