The Scottish Government has given more than £5m of taxpayers’ money to a Chinese Confucius teaching project in Scottish schools, despite human rights concerns and fears it may risk national security.
The grants were given to Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS) which is based at Strathclyde University and has 22 learning hubs in schools to promote Chinese languages and culture.
A freedom of information request has revealed that since the 2015-16 financial year the Scottish Government has given the CISS eight grants totalling £5,333,388. The Scottish Government said language skills and cultural awareness are essential for young people in Scotland.
But concerns have been raised over China’s potential influence in Scotland’s education sector, and Confucius institutes have been criticised because they are funded by the Chinese state, which has been accused of spying and crimes against humanity.
Critics claim that Conficius learning hubs are used as “soft power” by China in an attempt to wield influence within the UK, and to spy on Chinese students studying abroad to ensure they do not speak out against their government.
There are also growing concerns over China’s human rights record, brought into sharp focus on 1 September 2022 after the UN accused the Chinese state of abuses that may amount to “crimes against humanity”.
Based at Strathclyde University, CISS says it is an “award winning Confucius Institute working with schools across Scotland to engage pupils with Chinese language learning and culture.” There are Conficius classroom hubs in primary and secondary schools across Scotland and scholarships are given for pupils to study in China for nine months.
John Jones, of the human rights group Free Tibet, called on the Scottish Government to stop funding CISS and claimed it was an “instrument of soft power by a government that is carrying out widespread abuses against Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hongkongers and Chinese citizens”.
Expressing concern about the presence of Confucius Institutes in Scottish schools and universities, Jones added: “While the study of the Chinese language and Chinese culture is fully worth supporting, there is no need for this to be carried out in collaboration with an authoritarian government.
“As the world wakes up to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) human rights abuses against Tibetans, Hongkongers and Uyghurs, it is no surprise that the global trend is one of governments and universities cutting ties with such institutes. It is our recommendation that the Scottish Government follows suit.”
Tory MSP Oliver Mundell – shadow cabinet secretary for education and skills – also voiced concern and said: “While building cross-cultural links is important, taxpayers will rightly raise an eyebrow at the amount of money being provided by the SNP Government to these controversial institutions, heavily linked to the Chinese Government. Given the large sums involved, full transparency and accountability from ministers is essential.”
Others to have previously questioned the presence of Confucius Institutes on campuses include human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar and Anne Henderson, the former rectors of Glasgow and Edinburgh universities.
Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak, an avid critic of China, has vowed to shut down the 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK due to fears over Chinese influence.
In 2019 The Ferret reported that the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission (CPHRC) had 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.
Last year we published claims by a former Chinese diplomat that China tries to control its international students studying at Scottish universities through student associations. The Chinese Embassy in London said China has “never, and will never, exert any political influence on normal academic activities in British universities.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) has accused China of “serious human rights violations” in a new report on alleged abuse in Xinjiang province.
The UN said there was “credible evidence” of torture amounting to “crimes against humanity”.
Human rights groups have alleged for some years now that more than one million Uyghurs had been detained against their will in a large network of what the Chinese state calls “re-education camps”.
The UN’s report said that the extent of arbitrary detentions against Uyghur and others, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
China has always strongly denied any wrongdoing. In a lengthy response published along with the UN report, the Chinese Government said the authorities in the Xinjiang region operate on the principle that everyone is equal before the law.
China also said that its counter-terrorism and “de-radicalization efforts” in the region, had been conducted according to “the rule of law” and by no means add up to “suppression of ethnic minorities.”
The Scottish Government said: “There is no interference in what is taught in Scottish schools. This is decided solely by Scottish councils, schools and our teachers. Schools are supported in delivering this by Scotland’s National Centre for Languages and its sister organisation Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS).
A government spokesperson added: “Support provided by CISS, including access to native speaking language assistants and immersion trips to China, would not be possible without their partnerships with Chinese institutions. Educational materials and resources provided by CISS are prepared in line with the principles of Curriculum for Excellence.”
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland — which represents universities — said: “Universities engage with open eyes and due diligence, ensuring that their practice is consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
“This approach has the backing of the Scottish Government. The internationalisation of higher education brings many benefits to our home students, to the curriculum and to research as well as revenue to universities and a contribution to Scotland’s economy and cultural life.”
A University of Strathclyde spokesperson said: “The Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS) at Strathclyde is part of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages which supports language learning and diversity through a network of Confucius Classroom hubs.
“As well as creating opportunities and widening access for learners in our schools, CISS enables the wider community to develop knowledge, skills and cultural awareness. The Institute also facilitates educational and cultural exchange between China and Scotland so that the two countries may continue to share expertise and learn from each other.”
This story was updated at 17:14 on 02/09/2022 to add a comment from the University of Strathclyde.
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