The Fate of Chinese Confucius Institutes in the UK At Stake


China is extremely worried about the status of Confucius institutes operating out of British universities after Rishi Sunak took over as Prime Minister. Sunak had come hard on China in July while racing for the coveted post as he promised to ban all 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK if he came to power. The Department for Education, UK has already tightened its position on Confucius Institutes stating that the Government was “committed to doing more to adapt to China’s growing impact” and encouraged people with concerns about any Confucius Institute activities to report them.

The demand for a ban on Confucius institutes picked up the pace, especially after the Henry Jackson Society Think tank made startling revelations in October about the hidden agenda of these institutes. In its report, the think tank stated that 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK are “trading on the reputations” of British universities while promoting the ideology of the Chinese regime.

“There are no offshoots of the Chinese state that are integrated more closely into British society than Confucius Institutes,” it said.

Officially, Confucius Institutes promote the Chinese language and run classes in culture, from calligraphy and cooking to tai chi. They also sponsor educational exchanges and hold public events and lectures. These institutes are open to the general public.

But the think tank’s report has made an `expose’ about the hidden agenda of institutes. The report found that just four out of 30 Confucius Institutes embedded within UK universities stuck to their alleged purpose of teaching language and culture. It said the majority of institutes were conducting other activities, including trying to “shape how China is understood in the UK” and attempting to forge links with British business and technology. It also highlighted concerns that the institutes are exercising an increasing interest in British politics and political lobbying.

It further said that some in the UK have hosted pro-China receptions in Parliament, organised diplomatic events and flown politicians to China. It also claimed some British politicians received funding from Confucius Institutes, without naming them.

It may be mentioned here that prior to Sunak, Liz Truss had adopted an increasingly hawkish position on China in recent months, with the country to be formally designated a “threat”.

The revelations by the Henry Jackson Society report have sent jitters to the Chinese leadership because it fears that the expose will adversely affect the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Some experts said that this will certainly motivate the UK government to formally abandon the “golden era” of relations with China, as proclaimed by David Cameron in 2015. Sam Dunning and Anson Kwong, the report’s authors have requested the UK Government to amend its upcoming Free Speech Bill for higher education providers to include certain terms that could make the continuing existence of Confucius Institutes in the UK untenable. They said that “in general [Confucius Institutes] are subject to People’s Republic of China speech restrictions”.

In their report, they also accused China of exploiting the name of ancient philosopher Confucius to “whitewash the [Chinese Communist Party’s] reputation and give it a foothold” in respected universities around the world. However, it said it was hopeful that ministers would soon realise the scope of China’s intentions for the institutes and that they are “not mere tools of soft power”.

While the issue is still being debated in the UK, Sweden has already shuttered all Confucius Institutes in the country as relations with China continue to deteriorate. In the US, out of the 118 Confucius Institutes set up over the past few decades, 104 have now closed or are in the process of closing.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, which opened the UK’s first Confucius Institute in 2005, cut ties with the scheme last year.

Chinese experts who have been closely watching unfolding developments in Confucius institutes, have attributed this to differences of opinion in UK circles about these institutes. “Out of their own interests, the UK security unit wants to pile more pressure on Sunak, in a bid to force him to fulfil his election vow and display a tough stance toward China,” Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times.

“The China policy within the British government has long been divided. The security sector tends to advocate a hard-line position on China, while the economic and diplomatic units would like to see a more balanced policy towards China.”

They however claimed that Confucius Institutes have long served as a bridge and bond between China and other countries including the UK in education and cultural communication and exchange. And the operation and management of the Confucius Institutes is open and transparent.

Chinese observers feared that Washington may push Sunak to follow the US in containing China in this regard with the G20 summit just around the corner.  Chinese experts targeted UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat accusing him of being a proponent of anti-China sentiment among the British political circle. According to them, he along with his Sinophobic China Research Group was sanctioned by the Chinese government in March 2021 for maliciously spreading lies and disinformation. In recent years, Tugendhat has repeatedly made foul remarks on issues related to China’s internal affairs such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang but failed to provide any evidence.

These experts however warned that playing tricks on the Confucius Institutes is not a good idea for Sunak. Especially considering that China is one of the UK’s largest trading partners, it is difficult for Britain to achieve economic recovery without sound ties with China. Such a trial balloon is pretty dangerous. -(TheLondonDaily)

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