Critics Raise Concerns Over Confucius Institutes in the UK

Jane Werrell

LONDON—Confucius Institutes are touted as educational programs imparting Chinese culture and language, but critics say they promote Chinese Communist Party propaganda and exclude those who follow China’s actual traditional beliefs.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into Confucius Institutes (CIs). The results of the inquiry are expected to be published before July this year.

“If it was simply teaching language and promoting culture, I think everyone would welcome that,” said vice-chair of the commission, Benedict Rogers. “But the fact that they are using Communist Party propaganda, and the fact that they are embedded in universities, and influencing the wider academic freedoms of universities is especially concerning.”

In the UK, there are 29 CIs and 127 Confucius classrooms attached to universities such as Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Nottingham, and University College London. There are around 500 CIs around the world and China aims to open a total of 1,000 by 2020, according to the inquiry.

But even as the their expansion across the UK is planned, questions are being raised.

On June 5, the documentary film “In the name of Confucius”, was screened at the British Parliament, in its UK premiere.

The film follows the story of Sonia Zhao, a Mandarin teacher at a CI who defected to Canada. Her exposure of what happens behind closed doors eventually led to the first closure of a CI in North America.

Doris Liu, film director of “In the name of Confucius”, said that by Western standards, some of the teaching materials used in CIs could be described as hate propaganda.

An example of this, Liu says, is a Chinese theme song from a propaganda film about a young boy being a soldier in the Chinese Communist Party. “The song was a theme song in a movie saying that the young boy has to have hatred towards landlords and kill them,” she said.

In Liu’s film, Zhao, a Falun Gong practitioner, felt pressured to sign her employment contract, which states that employees are not allowed to practise Falun Gong, a cultivation method of the Buddha school that has been brutally suppressed in China since 1999.

“Confucius Institutes bar people with certain religious beliefs or certain political opinions, to be instructors,” said Liu.

She added, “The character in my film Sonia Zhao told me when she had training in Beijing before she was sent to Canada, she was told to avoid those topics, like Tibet, Falun Gong, in their classrooms. If she was chased by the students for an answer, she would just state the party line.”

In 2009, former propaganda tzar for the Chinese Communist Party, Li Changchun, described CIs as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

Rogers, vice-chair of the commission, said that while the documentary film is based in Canada, the concerns over CIs are global.

“What’s detailed in the film, which is in Canada, is happening all over the world, wherever Confucius Institutes are,” he said.

For Miriam Lexmann, director of the International Republican Institute EU Office, the film highlighted how quickly free democracies can be changed.

“We need to defend academic freedom in our Western world,” she said. “We should make sure those who enjoy democracy are made aware how slippery democracy can be and how quickly things can be changed.”

Dr. Niall McCrae, a lecturer at King’s College London, echoed her concerns.

McCrae said that administrators at Western universities seemed to be quite “naive” about CIs.

“I have to be honest, I didn’t know about it until recently,” he said. “I was very aware that there were a lot more Chinese students in my university, what I didn’t know is that there are one or two among those groups of Chinese students who are actually spying for the communist government on their peers. This sort of thing absolutely shocked me.”

McCrae added that more pressure needed to be exerted to alert school administrators to the issue. “We shouldn’t be worried about perceptions about xenophobia. This is to help, first and foremost, to help Chinese students.”

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