Questions are being raised about China's role in the development of the new Leaving Certificate Mandarin Chinese syllabus after it emerged an agreement between the Irish and Chinese education authorities was signed in 2019.
Controversy already surrounds the new exam over a ban on traditional Chinese characters, used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in favour of China’s simplified script, which the Department said was more suitable for beginners.
RTÉ News has learned that the Department of Education signed a memorandum of understanding with China's Ministry of Education agreeing "support for implementation of the Leaving Certificate curriculum, particularly in relation to teacher supply and teacher training".
In response to a request for a copy of the agreement and minutes of a meeting with Chinese officials in July 2019, a department spokesperson said that the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Embassy would first need to be consulted "to ensure there is no objection to the release" and in order to "maintain codes of good practice and courtesy."
The Chinese Embassy said in a statement that the department did not need their permission to release the MOU which they said was "signed based on the needs of the Irish side" and that while the Chinese side provided "necessary assistance and support, the forms and contents of the Leaving Certificate Exam are totally decided by the Irish Department of Education".
"It should be pointed out that the simplified Mandarin Chinese character is universally used in the mainland of China as well as in Singapore," the statement added.
Chinese experts in Ireland said the deal between the two sides raised questions about the decision-making behind the Leaving Cert syllabus.
"Is this the reason the department seems adamant to use only simplified characters, the ones used in teacher training in China?" asked Henry Leperlier-Healy, former head of Chinese Studies at Dublin Institute of Technology.
Others said agreements with the Chinese state about teaching in Irish classrooms should be open to more scrutiny.
"You cannot separate ideology and education in China," said David O'Brien professor of East Asian Studies at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.
"This is something Irish teachers and students may find problematic if it influences what they are learning," he said.
Mainland China’s use of its writing system dates to the 1950s, when shortly after sweeping to power, the Communist Party adopted the simplified script as part of a literacy campaign.
But Taiwan and Hong Kong - which have retained the traditional, more complex characters - now find themselves on the frontline of a global clash of values with China, where language and culture are heavily intertwined with politics and ideology.
Some academics argue that the Communist Party has an interest in promoting its script above alternative writing systems because they provide a gateway to diverse political and historical narratives, at odds with its own.
"What is at stake is the shaping of Irish perceptions of China," said Gregory Lee, Founding Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of St. Andrews.
"In limiting the learning of Chinese to simplified characters students are cut off from access to other countries’ texts and versions of current affairs, which amounts to controlling the narrative," Professor Lee said.
For months now campaigners have been fighting the decision to allow only simplified Chinese characters in the Leaving Certificate examination, saying it discriminates against heritage learners.
When the first Irish students, some from Taiwanese and Hong Kong backgrounds, come to take the exam in 2022, if they write in complex characters, answers will be marked as incorrect.
Dr Isabella Jackson, Assistant Professor in Chinese History at Trinity College Dublin said, "to tell people that their own, entirely legitimate, writing system is wrong is both insulting and ignorant."
In an open letter published on Monday, the Leaving Certificate Mandarin Chinese Concern Group called on the Government to reverse the decision which they said was based on a "misunderstanding" of the language.
"The denial of a heritage language of Chinese Irish children is a denial of part of their identity," said Peg Chiu, a founder of the group.
A petition organised by the campaign had gathered more than 3,500 signatures.
"Learning a language is not just about the language itself," Ms Chiu said, "it includes the learning of the culture behind it."
The Department of Education said that the specification for the Leaving Certificate Mandarin curriculum stipulated simplified characters because it was designed for beginners and not "heritage speakers" although they were "welcome to study the course and sit the exam".
"The inclusion of traditional characters is not suitable for a specification pitched at 'ab initio' level," a spokesperson said.
But campaigners said it was "a myth" that traditional characters, which have more strokes were more difficult to learn.
"It shows they misunderstood the Chinese language a lot," said Peg Chiu.
"Learning traditional characters isn't the massive burden that many people assume it to be," said Tomás Swinburne from Clane, Co Kildare, who studied Mandarin first at Dublin Institute of Technology and in Beijing before moving to Taiwan for a Masters degree.
"I find it quite insulting the Government thought it could brush past this issue without considering all language learners and with our history of Irish becoming extinct, you'd think the Department of Education would have the sense to not restrict the language learning of Mandarin," Mr Swinburne added.
As in many countries, Confucius Institutes - a Chinese state-backed initiative to promote the teaching of the Chinese language - have been instrumental in the development of Mandarin at post-primary level.
At the meeting held at the Department of Education on 3 July 2019 attended by the Chinese Embassy, the UCD Confucius Institute reported on its progress working with Irish schools.
The minutes of the meeting have not been made available by the Department of Education - pending approval from the Chinese Embassy - but a spokesperson confirmed that the Leaving Certificate specification was also discussed.
"They were advised that the specification was being designed for non-native speakers," a spokesperson for the Department of Education said.
The director of UCD Confucius Institute, Professor Liming Wang, said that that there were pragmatic arguments for choosing the simplified script at beginner level, but he agreed that traditional characters should also be allowed in exams.
"Since the 1950s, the simplified script has become the most widely used, so many learning resources and publications are in simplified Chinese," he said.
"It has become mainstream in the EU and many major universities worldwide, so learning simplified is not the wrong choice."
"But when it comes to assessment," he said about future Leaving Cert exams, "it should be more open. Using traditional characters should be a choice and inclusiveness for heritage learners should be encouraged," he said.
Chinese is the only one of four ancient pictographic languages to survive to the modern day and using a pictographic language trains the right side of the brain said Professor Wang.
"That, in my view, is much more important than the need to do business with China," he said.
Concerns over the thoroughness of the consultation process were dismissed by the Department of Education after one member of a subgroup set up to develop the specification described it as "box-ticking".
The specification was developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) following "extensive consultation", a spokesperson said and "the department is satisfied that the process is rigorous, collaborative and meaningful".
The exclusion of alternative writing forms puts the NCCA specification for Mandarin Chinese at odds with other new Leaving Certificate courses such as Portuguese which "was designed with all standard variations of the Portuguese language in mind".
"Accordingly, learning outcomes and experiences are intended to meet the needs of all learners including, but not limited to, those from Angolan, Brazilian, Mozambican, Portuguese and other Portuguese-speaking heritage backgrounds," the description of the specification states.
It also sets the Irish Leaving Certificate apart from other similar assessments elsewhere.
Professor Lee said he was puzzled by the decision to exclude traditional characters as other examination authorities such as the Scottish Qualification Authority, the International Baccalaureate and most English A level boards "take a more flexible approach" allowing candidates to write their responses to questions in either simplified or traditional characters.
Here in Taiwan - which Beijing deems a breakaway province which will one day be united with "the motherland, by force if necessary" - traditional characters are considered a "treasured cultural legacy" according to official statements.
Against the backdrop of rising tension across the Strait, many Taiwanese see their version of Mandarin, as a symbol of a distinct identity and the use of simplified characters is discouraged.
In a statement to RTÉ News, Taiwan's Ministry of Education offered language assessment resources to the Irish Department of Education and said "the Ministry hopes that the Irish Ministry of Education can provide both the traditional and simplified test methods, so that students have more room to learn from multiple cultures".
But it’s an offer that only serves to underscore the politics at play in Chinese language learning.
"Beijing does not tolerate countries with which it has diplomatic relations having any formal engagement with Taiwan," said Professor O'Brien, "so it would raise tensions if Ireland were to pursue this."
Meanwhile, in mainland China, a drive to promote Mandarin in education gathered pace with an announcement last week from China’s Ministry of Education that standard spoken and written Chinese would be introduced in kindergartens in rural and ethnic minority regions, which use other dialects.
And in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken, Mandarin is now being pushed.
"There has been a recent governmental initiative in Hong Kong to teach simplified characters in schools at the expense of the traditional script," said Professor Lee.
"Naturally, the reaction has not been cordial; the suspicion being that the central authorities wish to cut the local community off from its own specific heritage," he said.
As the row over characters intensifies, academics in Ireland pointed out that education was crucial to the Communist Party’s global propaganda efforts.
Alexander Dukalskis, Associate Professor with the UCD School of Politics and International Relations said China’s leaders had been "crystal clear that they want to influence China’s image abroad" and media, social media and educational programmes "are part and parcel of how China is perceived".
"The Chinese Communist Party is a hugely illiberal body that uses liberal spheres to get its narrative out there," he said and questioned why the agreement on the Leaving Cert had not been made public at the time.