What fate for China’s Confucius Institutes under new PM?
A bill on planned curbs on influence operations by foreign governments making its way through the British parliament could have an impact, despite a perceived softening of the government’s stand on China under the country’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
According to Andreas Fulda, associate professor at Nottingham University and an expert on Europe-China relations, universities in the UK “are a bit stalled now” on the issue of Confucius Institutes. “There is a wait-and-see attitude in British universities in terms of [waiting for] what the government will say,” he told University World News.
Shifting stances at the top
Frequent changes at the head of government – the UK has had three prime ministers since September – have contributed to uncertainty for universities. Liz Truss, who took over for a brief period from Boris Johnson as prime minister in September before being replaced by Rishi Sunak last month, was noticeably hawkish on China.
“Universities had to keep up with that, but the newest report is that he [Sunak] is backpedalling on things like declaring China as a ‘threat’,” noted Fulda.
In Bali this week for the Group of 20 world leaders’ summit, Sunak downgraded his description of China as a systemic “threat” – as the US and other allies do – to a systemic “challenge”.
Commentators have noted he wants less confrontational UK-China relations, even as his ruling Conservative Party has moved towards a stronger position on combatting China’s influence on business and academia.
Unlike Truss’s hardline stance towards China, Sunak said he still wanted a working relationship with Beijing, describing it as “an indisputable fact of the global economy”. This is seen as a rollback from the position he articulated in July when he was still campaigning for leadership of the party and promised to “kick the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] out of our universities”.
Sunak’s apparent softening led to former Conservative Party chairman Iain Duncan Smith this week accusing him of “appeasing” the Chinese, a term used during World War II to refer to those who did not stand up against the threat of Nazi Germany.
There are still strong signals of scepticism regarding China from the current government, most notably from Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat and the UK’s intelligence agencies.
On 16 November, Ken McCallum, head of Britain’s domestic security agency MI5, said in his annual threat assessment “as part of efforts to manipulate opinion in its favour, Chinese authorities were also ‘cultivating assets’ in academia, business and in parliament”.
Tugendhat and Duncan Smith were both sanctioned by the Chinese last year, along with a number of academics, for criticising Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Responding to a question from his own party during a debate in the House of Commons on 1 November, Tugendhat announced that Sunak was “looking to close” the 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK. He added: “Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the UK.”
Proposed legislative changes
Tugendhat also pointed to the National Security Bill currently going through the UK parliament as evidence of the direction in which the government was headed.
The draft bill, which makes it a criminal offence to “improperly interfere with the UK’s democracy and civil society”, for example, through disinformation, also now includes a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme in terms of which organisations with close ties to overseas governments would be required to register as agents of a foreign power.
In addition, a group of some 20 China-sceptic UK parliamentarians linked to the China Research Group and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China tabled an amendment to the government’s controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to require universities to monitor the overseas funding of higher education providers, including the Chinese-funded institutes.
The current draft of the bill would provide the government with arbitrary powers to terminate language or cultural programmes at universities if they were deemed to threaten freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Similar measures are already in place in Australia and the United States, with Confucius Institutes preferring to shut down, or register as separate entities, rather than have their Chinese employees registered as ‘foreign agents’.
UK academics also say there is not much universities can do if the National Security legislation is passed.
“People in universities have got the message and they know that national security will play a bigger role in the future. But how it will impact universities will depend on the exact content of the legislation, for example, transparency requirements, in terms of donations, or whether or not Confucius Institutes are still allowed on British campuses,” said Fulda.
No joint stance from universities
Universities UK, the umbrella body for universities, said in response to a request from University World News that the issue of Confucius Institutes was being discussed internally but “unfortunately this does not appear to be something which we’re able to comment on at the moment”.
A China expert at a university with a large Confucius Institute, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Universities do not have a unified or joint stance on something that is ultimately not in their own hands. There is also concern that openly standing up for Confucius Institutes could aggravate the situation, play into the hands of the China hawks in government and complicate what appears to be a still emerging China policy to be defined by the new [Sunak] government.”
He described the signals coming out of the government as “contradictory and confused”.
“But even before this, universities have already become aware they need to diversify their sources of income and not rely so heavily on students from China, funding that comes through Confucius Institutes, and funding that comes via companies and research collaborations with China,” he added, referring to the suspension by universities, including Oxford, of research grants and donations from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2019.
The UK’s position contrasts with the far less ambiguous stance taken over the past two years by the US, where only 20 Confucius Institutes out of 100 are left. In Europe, there has been a rapid closure of Confucius Institutes in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Other institutes in Europe have been detached from universities and continue to operate as separate entities.
According to Fulda, Germany had previously seemed more reluctant to take a stance on Confucius Institutes at universities and on the issue of China’s influence on academia and research. “But now the discourse in Germany has leapfrogged over the British discourse, and has become much more critical of academic cooperation with China in general.”
Though many universities clearly oppose the targeting of these Institutes – some have been reluctant to engage critics of Confucius Institutes in government and elsewhere.
With high dependence on Chinese student fees, some university leaders may fear that China could threaten to ‘block’ its citizens from studying in the UK – as a form of leverage against the UK government.
In 2020 and 2021, in the midst of China’s political and trade disputes with Australia, the Chinese government warned students through its official media of the need to ‘exercise caution’ when going to Australia to study. Ultimately, China stopped short of an explicit bar on study in Australia.
Some academics argue that the UK government has provided little evidence of its claims of Chinese influence via Confucius Institutes.
However, a professor at a university in the north of England who chose to remain anonymous told University World News that “China’s own actions in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong in putting down the uprisings there have meant it is no longer about proof. China’s own conduct as an authoritarian state makes the presence of entities linked to the [Chinese government] an issue in the UK.”
A report released last month by the right-leaning Henry Jackson Society foreign policy and national security think tank, and co-sponsored by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, investigated Confucius Institutes in the UK, noting that the UK has around 30 Confucius Institutes, which it estimates to have been funded “to the tune of perhaps £46 million (US$54 million) by Chinese sources, mostly the Chinese government”.
It specifically identified £33.4 million (nearly US$40 million) of funding from China “despite many universities not offering full or even partial disclosure of their funding”, but adding a rough estimate of another £10 million-£15 million of funding.
“Whatever the figure paid to British universities, the actual sum spent by Chinese entities on the Confucius Institutes is higher, because some costs (eg, basic instructor salaries) have been paid directly by them and not channelled through universities,” the report said.
“We found that of 27 institutes out of 30 in the UK, we aimed to establish with a degree of certainty what their activities are, only four out of those 27 are sticking to language and culture,” said Sam Dunning, one of the report’s authors, during a panel discussion organised in London by the Henry Jackson Society last month.
“The rest of the activities of these institutes is incredibly varied, and from a university governance perspective … are quite inappropriate,” Dunning said.
So Confucius Institutes, purporting to be language centres, are “making forays into [UK] politics and among politicians [who] received funding from Confucius Institutes [are] a number of parliamentary groups and voluntary groups”, which, he said, interact closely with Confucius Institutes.
Beijing insists that Confucius Institutes “follow the rules of the institutions where they reside, strictly abide by local laws and regulations and respect the customs of host countries” and China’s official media has criticised any calls to ban the institutes as putting “innocent teachers at the mercy of geopolitics”.
The Chinese government sees the actions in Europe and the UK as being instigated by the United States which has its own hawkish China policy.
In the Henry Jackson Society report, eight Confucius Institutes at UK universities were examined in depth, including the contracts signed between universities and Chinese entities.
“This investigation uncovered connections to the [Communist Party’s] United Front Work Department and the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party; payments to British politicians and political activity; involvement in the establishment of scientific partnerships between British and Chinese universities,” the report said.
“There is no good reason for which a country such as the UK ought to put its higher education sector at risk by being dependent on a foreign government for the teaching of a major world language,” the report concluded.
Though it has been widely discussed by academics, universities have been reluctant to comment publicly on the report, not wishing to spotlight their own activities with Confucius Institutes. “They are hiding behind each other, hoping not to draw attention to themselves,” said a London academic who asked for anonymity.
Others noted that while foreign students from China were important, the UK’s colonial links to Hong Kong and the arrival in the UK of over 100,000 Hong Kong people since Beijing imposed the draconian national security law in Hong Kong in July 2020, has meant Hong Kong students are also an important lobbying force against the Confucius Institutes.
It will impact public discourse in the long term, said Fulda, “because Britain suddenly has an entire constituency of [Chinese] regime critics”.
Some China mainland students are often suspected of carrying out surveillance activities against Hong Kong students in UK universities and passing information on to Chinese diplomats, and tensions have erupted between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students, notably at Sheffield University.
To ban or not to ban?
Not everyone is in favour of an outright ban on Confucius Institutes. Dunning noted that the report “doesn’t explicitly, repeatedly call for a ban. But we do propose various ways of putting an end to the Confucius Institute programme.”
For example, the report recommends an amendment to the upcoming Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which would affect the UK’s Confucius Institutes by demanding that the agreements that govern them contain certain terms. This would likely lead to the removal of Confucius Institutes from universities, he said.
Bob Seely, a Conservative MP and a member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, said during a 12 October panel discussion on the report: “I still think there is an open question about whether Confucius Institutes have a future in the UK – I remain sceptical.
“If you’ve got Chinese students who are here, and are being monitored by Confucius Institutes, if they are and if that is the case, that is not a good thing for UK education, for freedom of speech in our country.
“We’ve seen the way that the Chinese state sadly tries to recruit friendly academics, friendly defence contractors and friendly scientists – potentially probably scientists who work in sensitive areas. And I just think we need to be really mindful of what is happening in the world and the growth of authoritarian regimes.
“If Confucius Institutes are putting constraints on academic freedom, that is a problem, and it needs to absolutely be confronted before Confucius Institutes in the UK are allowed to stay and prosper,” Seely said.
However, he added, it was very important for the UK to have Chinese students, and he also sought to eschew ‘spies in the bed’ paranoia. “It has to be so that there is no constraint on academic freedom. And they have to play a role which is respectful of the Western intellectual and academic traditions.”
Academics have said privately they doubt the UK government would bring in an outright ban which could anger Beijing, but there will be pressure for universities to hive the institutes off as separate entities.
Germany and some other European countries “don’t disallow Confucius Institutes. They still exist, but they’re no longer affiliated with the university. And I think, ultimately, this is what we’re going to see in the UK as well,” said Fulda.
“And that’s sensible. In an open society we can live with Confucius Institutes, but we should not allow them to engage in ‘reputation laundering’,” he said. “They have no place on campus. They should rent their own office space, run their own activities, and if people want to collaborate with the Confucius Institute, then they can.”
Unlike universities in England, Scotland’s universities have openly raised concerns over a ban. Scotland has its own higher education system and laws, though it complies with laws set by London on national security, immigration and foreign policy.
Scotland has five Confucius Institutes, but they are predominantly funded to teach Mandarin to school pupils, students and adult learners.
George Boyne, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland which hosts a Confucius Institute, told members of the Scottish parliament on 28 September: “I have never experienced even a hint of an attempt to influence university policy, either in Aberdeen or in my previous institutions. I have experienced no attempt to put any pressure on us to do one thing rather than another from a Confucius Institute.”
A spokesperson from Universities Scotland, the umbrella body responsible for Scottish universities, told University World News: “Universities engage internationally with open eyes and due diligence, ensuring that partnerships are consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
“The internationalisation of higher education and associated cultural links bring 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.
“We will work closely with the Scottish and UK governments to offer reassurance on institutional operations, as needed, and to understand the intent and the rationale behind this policy change.”