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“A study finds that “the purpose of the Confucius Institutes is to advance the interests of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in higher education centres, and society more broadly.”

Ever since the Confucius Institutes programme was launched with much fanfare in 2004 on the lines of the British Council and Alliance Francaise, among a host of other similar government-sponsored language and cultural organisations, it was mired in controversies. As extremely generous funding by the Communist Party of China / Chinese government spurred its rapid expansion across the globe, criticisms against it included “administrative concerns about finance, academic viability, legal issues, relations with the Chinese partner universities, an improper influence over teaching and research, interference in/influencing domestic politics, industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese nationals abroad and undermining Taiwanese influence” in host countries. Subsequently, a number of Confucius Institutes and classrooms were subjected to control by the host governments or shuttered permanently.

Chinese Confucius
PC: Beijing Review

A number of recent tweets by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and statements by other senior British officials, like “Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching at school is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, thereby promoting Chinese soft power”, “China and the Chinese Communist Party represent the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”, “Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the United Kingdom and he [Rishi Sunak] would be looking into closing them”, “I would close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK – the highest number in the world,” etc. generated renewed interest in the subject globally.

Without going into the details of alleged unacceptable activities, closure etc. of these institutes in the UK and other countries, this writer focused on a recently accessed study, titled “Are Confucius Institutes Legal?” by UK-China Transparency (UKCT). [UKCT is an independent registered charity that aims to fill a vital gap in knowledge about ties between Chinese and British educational and research institutions, companies, NGOs, political groups and government bodies.] Each of the 30 Confucius Institutes in the United Kingdom is a partnership between the concerned UK university and a Chinese entity, mostly a Chinese university, and a Chinese government agency, the Centre for Language Education and Exchange (CLEC). Its staff members are generally from Britain with the Mandarin language teachers recruited from China. Each institute has two co-directors, one each from the UK and China.

A major part of the study analyses a range of primary source data on the recruitment processes and procedures of Chinese staff working in these institutes which goes on to inconclusively prove that the primary aim of China setting up Confucius Institutes abroad is for pushing CPC’s interests and executing its biddings, rather than promoting Chinese culture and the Mandarin language, its ostensible objectives. In the authors’ words, “the purpose of the Confucius Institute is to advance the interests of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in ……… higher education, and society more broadly”. According to them, these interests include “the teaching of Mandarin, promotion of scientific collaboration, political and business networking propaganda and activities intended to shape how China and the CPC are viewed and studied academically, and the extension of CPC influence on campus”.

The data procured and analysed for the study included responses from British universities under the UK’s Freedom of Information (FOI) rules, agreements and MoUs signed between the British universities and their Chinese partner entities, and between British universities and CLEC (a Chinese entity set up in the UK under UK rules), and Chinese language material relating to the process used to recruit staff for these institutes from China. Apart from these, material from relevant files obtained from UK Home Office and also from concerned British universities, all through FOI, were also studied.

Analysis of these documents revealed that the Confucius Institutes working in the universities in the UK were functioning illegally, i.e., by contravening various well-established British rules and regulations. More seriously, it was discovered that these institutes actually enable transnational repression in the UK. Other findings include the Quote: “(i) the staff at these institutes are recruited in a highly discriminatory way that is illegal under UK law; (ii) staff are being recruited based on their ability to enforce ‘CPC discipline’ in the UK and are obliged to undermine free speech and to conduct harassment on command; (iii) universities are systematically enabling this in a way that breaches their legal obligations to staff and students, and (iv) the [British] Home Office is systematically enabling this by means of an unlawful dedicated visa route which makes the employment status of Confucius Institutes staff unclear.” Unquote.

It was further revealed that the staff recruitment process adopted by partner Chinese entities/universities using a uniform method for placing in Confucius Institutes was highly discriminatory that is illegal under UK law. It added that “political, age-based, sexist, religious, and racist forms of discrimination” are embedded into the recruitment process. The applicants are required to declare: Quote: “(a) details of their ‘political characteristics’ and ‘ethnicity’; (b) a promise not to have a child whilst working abroad; (c) have their current employer/manager evaluate their ‘political attitude’; and (d) ‘be evaluated by a CCP Committee”. Unquote. The report highlighted that such conditions are illegal under UK law.

The report observes that the ethnicity clause is to ensure the recruitment of only “sinicised” candidates. (Without saying it in so many words, it alludes that the strategy is to keep Tibetans and Uyghurs whose total loyalty to CPC is doubtful from getting avoidable exposure in the West.) Additionally, partner universities in China “exclude applicants from minority groups ‘persecuted’ in China”. The applicants have to undertake that they are not members of any “illegal organisations” that “include numerous religious groups associated with Islam, Christianity and Buddhism”. The study further states that applicants are required to “fill in a Chinese language form that asks for their “political characteristics and the details of a close relative” and the latter’s “political characteristics”. It added that application forms in English “have no reference to politics”. 

Title image courtesy: The Quint

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Article courtesy: The Asian Institute for China and IOR Studies

By Muraleedharan Nair

After completing studies at the University of Kerala, Muraleedharan Nair did a Post-graduate programme in Marketing and Advertising from Bhavan’s Rajendra Prasad Institute of Communication and Management, Mumbai. He has held various positions in the Government, in India, and abroad. Besides publishing research papers in various books and journals, Mr Nair writes commentaries in newspapers and magazines regularly. He also participates in conferences, seminars, and panel discussions on strategic affairs at different universities, think tanks, TV channels, All India Radio, etc. A Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Policy Research, he speaks Urdu and Chinese.