“Tell your students about China’s high-speed railway. Describe to them how fast, convenient, and advanced it is.”
“Don’t discuss Taiwan and Tibet with your students. If they ask, say there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China. If they ask more, try to change the subject.”
These were some of the things that former teachers Mike Chen and Sonia Zhao say they were told in training sessions in China before they were sent to teach Mandarin at one of the hundreds of Confucius Institutes (CIs) that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has set up internationally.
“We were told of this noble mission of reviving China on the world stage, and we were made to feel it was our calling to spread the Chinese culture and promote the positive images of China to the external world,” said Chen (a pseudonym), who spoke to The Epoch Times on condition of anonymity.
CIs are marketed to universities as academic centers for learning Chinese language and culture. As Beijing provides a significant portion of the funding and pays the salaries of teaching staff, CIs have quickly established a presence on the campuses of more than 540 universities in more than 100 countries since the program began in 2004, according to figures released by Hanban, the government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Education that oversees the CI program.
In the UK, there are about 30 CIs, the highest number in Europe, and second only in the world after the United States.
In recent years, however, particularly in the wake of the CCP virus pandemic, the CI program has faced serious backlash in several Western countries for alleged efforts to undermine academic freedom while advancing the authoritarian regime’s agenda and global influence.
Countries including Australia, the United States, Germany, and Sweden have ramped up efforts to close CIs and also Confucius Classrooms, which are CI offshoots found in primary and secondary schools.
Trained to Promote the CCP
All language instructors hired by CIs are mandated to spend six to eight weeks at an all-expenses-paid residential training camp in China, where attendees learn how to promote a positive image of China, Chen said.
Prior to the coaching sessions, Chen and other attendees were taken to visit some of China’s renowned tourist sites, such as the Great Wall of China, as well as historical sites and museums that displayed China’s “glorious” history and achievements of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the past few decades. These events weren’t meant to be ice-breaker trips for the trainees, but to instill in them a sense of nationalism and loyalty to the Party, he said.
“Most of us were young, many fresh out of university. With all expenses paid for including the sightseeing, and with the prospect of working abroad with a dream salary, we were all in a great mood, and happily took in everything we were told,” Chen said.
“The activities, the settings, and discussion invoked a strong sense of pride in us that China was turning into the greatest country on earth.”
Chen marveled at how many renowned lecturers and professors were brought in to coach them.
“I only knew their names from textbooks previously,” he said.
Zhao, who attended a different CI training camp in China as a new university graduate, shared a similar experience in 2011 after leaving her job at a CI in Canada, The Epoch Times reported at the time.
According to Zhao, during their training, they were taught that if a student insists on asking a question, the teachers must toe the CCP line on the issue, such as: Taiwan is part of China, and Tibet has been “liberated” by the regime.
Once established, CIs became platforms for further spreading the CCP’s narrative.
The Falun Gong spiritual practice, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the origins of the Korean War are among many other topics considered taboo by the Chinese regime.
‘Correct’ Political Orientation Ensured
Chen, like all other coaching participants, was put through a vetting process to ensure his political orientation was aligned with the regime.
Every applicant for a teaching position is required to submit at least one reference from his or her university or current employer, he said.
“If you do not hold the correct thinking by their standards, your application will not be accepted,” Chen said.
In a template reference letter obtained by The Epoch Times that was issued by Xiamen University, an assessment of the applicant’s “political thought” is listed as the first recommended item to include on the form, ahead of “teaching ability” and “physical and mental health.”
Furthermore, two signoffs are required, with the first-level approval coming from the branch head of the CCP where the applicant is currently studying or working. All state-backed or large enterprises, including schools in China, have a Communist Party presence built into their organizations to ensure political adherence.
Xiamen University is one of the main partner universities working for Hanban to train and recruit teaching staff for 15 Confucius Institutes and 46 Confucius Classrooms. In the UK, Xiamen is the partner university of CIs at Newcastle University, Cardiff University, and the University of Southampton.
Zhao also went through the highly politicized and discriminatory hiring process.
Before her assignment to teach Mandarin at a CI at McMaster University in Canada, Zhao had to sign a contract stipulating that staff members can’t do anything that isn’t to the liking of the CCP, and explicitly stating that they can’t practice Falun Gong.
Zhao and her mother had been quietly practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual group persecuted in China since 1999. Because of the fear of being arrested and detained, as her mother had been, she concealed her faith and signed the contract against her conscience.
In 2011, Zhao informed McMaster of the CI’s discriminatory hiring practice and filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. After failing to get Hanban to remove the discriminatory requirements, the university decided to close the CI in 2013.
More recently, direct references to dissident groups such as Falun Gong and Free Tibet have been removed from contracts, Chen says, possibly due to increasing international scrutiny. Instead, there are now more generic clauses prohibiting CI teachers from attending “events not approved by the Institute.”
“We all understand what that means,” Chen said. He doesn’t believe the different wording reflects a change in attitude.
“The requirement of a reference letter which shows your ‘political character’ is still in place,” Chen said.
While officially under the Ministry of Education, Hanban’s governing council is chaired by Sun Chunlan, a vice premier and member of the powerful Politburo. From 2014 to 2017, Sun led the United Front Work Department, which runs a massive influence operation inside and outside of China, reporting directly to the Party’s Central Committee.
Unlike other language and cultural centers, such as the British Council or Alliance Française, CIs are integrated into their host universities, making it much easier and more efficient to influence academic discourse on campus.
Beijing spends hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars every year to maintain the CIs and build more.
According to The Economist, Beijing provides $100,000 to $200,000 a year to each CI, on top of paid-for instructors and sponsored events. Hanban annual reports showed that five years after starting the project, in 2009 its annual spending reached a staggering $170 million. That shot up to $278 million in 2013, and its 2016 budget was more than $310 million. From 2006 to 2016, the Chinese regime spent over $2 billion on CIs.
CI teachers are paid exceptionally well by Chinese standards.
A public recruitment announcement for CI teaching positions showed that the lowest pay starts at $1,500 a month for a teaching assistant position, plus an annual bonus and various perks such as subsidies for relocation, commuting, and flat rental.
According to Chen, the entry-level pay at a CI for someone with limited or no experience is similar to the level of income of an associate professor in China, who would hold a doctoral degree and have up to 10 years of experience teaching undergraduate courses.
Beijing’s spending to support overseas propaganda activities not only raised many eyebrows and invited suspicion from the West, but also caused dismay among many Chinese, as they believed the needs of domestic, often impoverished, students were being ignored, according to a 2014 Foreign Policy article.
“The government has gone abroad with a fist full of cash to open schools, to the point where even Americans can’t stand it,” one Chinese blogger wrote.
Closures and Reviews
Since McMaster University closed its CI in 2013, more than 50 other universities in Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany, France, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark have severed their ties with the program.
The United States recently took an additional step. Last month, the State Department classified the Washington-based nonprofit Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of China to reflect that it’s “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms.”
By designating it as a foreign mission, the Trump administration aims to ensure that “universities, again, take a hard look at what those institutes are doing on their campuses and then decide for themselves if this is something that supports and advances academic freedom and our democratic values or not,” Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell said in a teleconference briefing in August.
In a February 2019 report (pdf), the UK’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission recommended the British government urgently review all existing agreements between British universities and CIs and the suspension of further partnerships until such a review is completed.