Chinese cultural centres in Scottish universities promote Chinese Communist Party propaganda and “threaten academic freedom and freedom of expression”, claims a new report.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission (CPHRC) has called for a review of partnerships between UK institutions and Confucius institutes, claiming they represent China’s “soft power” and pose a threat to Britain’s national security.
Established in 2004 Confucius institutes are non-profit organisations which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries, but the CPHRC is concerned over their influence in the UK after obtaining evidence which, it said, “raises very serious questions”.
Incidents of censorship are highlighted in CPHRC’s report including a ban on discussion in Confucius institutes of three key sensitive topics: the Tiananmen massacre, Tibet and Taiwan.
Staff at Confucius institutes have faced discrimination due to their beliefs, the report said, adding that at least 27 universities have terminated contracts and closed Confucius Institutes. They include Stockholm University, University of Lyon, University of Chicago and Pennsylvania University.
The report notes that in 2007 the then head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, Li Changchun, described Confucius institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.
It also says that in 2010 Xu Lin, director-general of Hanban, an agency of China’s Ministry of Education which oversees Confucius institutes, said: “Confucius institutes … are an important part of soft power. Because we want to expand our influences, we do not deny this. We agree.”
CPHRC chair, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, said the evidence raises “very serious questions about the influence which Confucius institutes may have in British universities and schools”.
She added: “We welcome and encourage language teaching and cultural exchange, but we believe a review is necessary to assess whether Confucius institutes represent a threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression, other basic rights and indeed national security.
“We also believe it is right to have an assessment to ensure that the curriculum taught in Confucius institutes is balanced, independent, holistic and comprehensive, and measures to require transparency and accountability in any future agreements between British institutions and Confucius institutes.”
Confucius institutes promote a distorted picture of Chinese history and life today, particularly in relation to issues such as Tibet which is either ignored or presented as an inalienable part of China, in line with Beijing’s rhetoric. John Jones, Free Tibet
The campaign group, Free Tibet, also expressed concern. Its campaigns and communications manager, John Jones, said: “This latest report rightly raises ongoing concerns about the impact Confucius institutes have on academic freedom and freedom of expression in universities.
“While students learning Mandarin or about Chinese culture should be supported, our concern with Confucius institutes is that they are financed and controlled by an authoritarian regime that denies freedom of expression to its own citizens. As a result Confucius institutes promote a distorted picture of Chinese history and life today, particularly in relation to issues such as Tibet which is either ignored or presented as an inalienable part of China, in line with Beijing’s rhetoric.
“The problem is not just what is and what is not taught in Confucius Institute classrooms but also the possibility that universities may alter their behaviour to avoid this funding being taken away in the future. This could result in events about Tibet, or featuring Tibetan activists, being avoided or cancelled.”
In reply, however, a University of Aberdeen spokesperson said: “The Confucius Institute of the University of Aberdeen acts as a linguistic and cultural bridge, promoting knowledge exchange between China and the people of north east Scotland and serving as the first port of call for information on China.
“Since its opening in 2013 it has run a series of successful Chinese language classes, and events for schools and the community. This includes the institute’s recent Chinese New Year celebrations, where a variety of events took place in Aberdeen city and shire to mark the Year of the Pig.”
Heriot-Watt University said it did not wish to comment while Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde universities did not reply to our requests for statements. The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond either.
It emerged in February that China plans to “optimise” the spread of Confucius institutes after a document on modernising China’s education system was released by the party’s central committee.
A few days later, the US Senate released a report condemning Chinese learning centres at American universities. The report, issued by the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, called for stringent controls to be placed on Confucius institutes, which operate at over 100 US universities while receiving funding from the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education.
In January The Ferret reported concerns over links between the Chinese tech giant Huawei – accused of spying by the US – and Scots universities. Huawei, which makes smart phones, has denied recent allegations of espionage.
Edinburgh and Napier Universities, who have partnerships with the firm, and Police Scotland, who use the firm’s broadband devices, rejected concerns around the security of the firm’s products.