Former McMaster Confucius Institute Teacher Seeks Asylum in Canada

By Omid Ghoreishi
Omid Ghoreishi
Omid Ghoreishi
Senior Reporter
Omid Ghoreishi is an Epoch Times reporter based in Toronto.
August 26, 2011Updated: October 1, 2015
Sonia Zhao gives a speech about the persecution of Falun Gong in China at a rally in Toronto celebrating 100 million people quitting the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliated organizations on August 13. (Gordon Yu/The Epoch Times)
Sonia Zhao gives a speech about the persecution of Falun Gong in China at a rally in Toronto celebrating 100 million people quitting the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliated organizations on August 13. (Gordon Yu/The Epoch Times)

A Chinese woman who came to Canada to teach Chinese language at McMaster University in Hamilton says she was required to sign a statement promising not to practice Falun Gong in order to obtain her position.

Sonia Zhao says she was warned she would face punishment if she breached the agreement, which she said all volunteer teachers at Confucius Institutes are required to sign before being hired.

As a result, Zhao says she secretly hid her belief in Falun Gong even while working at McMaster. In July, she left the institute and has applied for refugee status in Canada. In a draft statement obtained by the Epoch Times, Zhao says, “Since I left the Confucius Institute, for the first time, I feel free inside.”

Falun Gong is a spiritual group persecuted in China, but legally registered in Canada.
The Epoch Times reported in July that the main Confucius Institute has on its website a directive in English stating that volunteer teachers must have “no record of participation in Falun Gong.”

B.C. lawyer Clive Ansley calls the rule a violation of “all human right codes in Canada.”

Winnipeg-based international human rights lawyer David Matas says the institutions that host Confucius Institutes “have a responsibility to ensure there is no discrimination.”

Funded by the Chinese regime and with over 300 branches worldwide, Confucius Institutes (CI) are non-profit organizations branded as promoting Chinese language and culture.

However, they are also seen as organizations charged with extending China’s “soft power.” A senior Chinese official has referred to the institutes as an “important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.”

“Although Confucius Institutes are located in foreign countries, they are still governed by the Chinese government,” says Zhao.

In an e-mailed response, Andrea Farquhar, Assistant Vice-President, Public and Government Relations at McMaster University, said the university is unaware of the CI contract requiring teachers not to associate with Falun Gong, “or any requirement for such documents to be signed by those who will be teaching within the Institute.”

“We will look into this further,” she wrote.

The Epoch Times had also earlier contacted Angela Sheng, Director Chair of the Confucius Institute at McMaster, for an earlier article on Confucius Institutes. Sheng, who had been identified by the university’s communications department as the spokesperson on this topic, said she wasn’t interested in talking and hung up the phone.

Beijing’s Long Arm

For 25-year-old Zhao, it all started about a year and half ago when she learned that her university was choosing graduates to teach Chinese language and culture as volunteers at CIs around the world.

The chance to travel abroad and teach traditional Chinese culture seemed like a dream job for Zhao, who majored in teaching Chinese to non-native speakers in university. She applied and got accepted.

A page from the Confucius Institute contract that Sonia Zhao was required to sign saying she agrees not to practice Falun Gong.  (Courtesy of Sonia Zhao)
A page from the Confucius Institute contract that Sonia Zhao was required to sign saying she agrees not to practice Falun Gong. (Courtesy of Sonia Zhao)

All went well—until she was handed a contract to sign stipulating that volunteers can’t do anything that isn’t to the liking of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and explicitly stating that they cannot practice Falun Gong.

Since this was the last step in the process, and the administrators knew there were no other barriers preventing her from going abroad to work for the CI, she thought it would be risky if she refused to sign.

“I thought maybe I would have to tell them I am a Falun Gong practitioner and then they would know and I would be in danger and risk being arrested”—a fate that Zhao was all too familiar with.

Since a teenager, Zhao had seen her mother get dragged to prison more than once because of her belief in Falun Gong. The two had started following the teachings of the spiritual practice after seeing the miraculous health effects it had on Zhao, who was very frail as a child.

Soon after getting accepted to the CI, Zhao started her training. Anticipating every possibility, the instructors taught them that at their level, being teaching assistants, if students ask about any topic deemed sensitive by the Chinese communist regime, they should change the subject and say that they are not here to discuss politics and should stick to language and culture.

Zhao says one of her colleagues at the McMaster CI was once asked by a student about the Taiwan independence issue. The colleague managed to avert the question. If she hadn’t, the students would have been told the Chinese regime’s version of the situation.

According to Zhao, during their training they are taught that if a student insists on a question, the teachers have to cite the CCP line on the issue: Taiwan is part of China, and Tibet has been “liberated” by the regime.

Discussion Curtailed

The bylaws of CIs indicate that they cannot “contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China.” In an article written in the China Heritage Quarterly published by the Australian National University-based China Heritage Project, Michael Churchman says this rule “offers endless possibilities for prohibiting the discussion or teaching of any topic that is deemed objectionable.”

“It is naive to believe that Confucius Institutes are politically disinterested teachers imparting Chinese culture and language. They exist for the express purpose of letting foreigners understand China on terms acceptable to official China,” writes Churchman.

In 2008 when Chinese paramilitary troops were violently confronting Tibetan protests, a University of Waterloo CI instructor rallied her students to condemn “anti-China” reports in the Western press.

The funds provided to hosting institutions through CIs are also sometimes used to direct the action of schools to be in line with the Chinese regime’s wish.

A judge in Israel ruled that Tel Aviv University bowed to the Chinese regime when it shut down a student-organized art exhibition on campus about the oppression of Falun Gong in China because the school feared losing perks provided by the regime, including a Confucius Institute.

In Canada, there are about nine other Confucius Institutes besides the one at McMaster, including at Brock University, University of Regina, British Columbia Institute of Technology, University of Sherbrooke (in partnership with Dawson College), University of Waterloo, Edmonton Public Schools, and the New Brunswick Department of Education.

University of British Columbia and University of Manitoba have decided not to host a CI.

For Zhao, the haunting memories of her mother being persecuted for her belief made her fearful of returning to China. She finally decided to leave CI last May and is now applying for refugee status.

“In Confucius Institute, the staff are sent by China and I need to be careful not to let them know I’m a Falun Gong practitioner. I just feared if they found that out something would happen to me,” she says.

“After I left the Confucius Institute, I started applying to stay as a refugee. Knowing I could do this, I don’t need to fear anymore, I feel free.”