Sage in­quiries

West di­als up scrutiny of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - El­lie.both­well@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Aca­demics have pre­dicted a crack­down on Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes across the West, as the UK be­comes the lat­est coun­try to host an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the role and in­flu­ence of the Chi­nese govern­ment-funded cen­tres.

While there have long been con­cerns over Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes – which aim to pro­mote Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture but are viewed by crit­ics as a method for spread­ing pro-China pro­pa­ganda – the cen­tres are now fac­ing in­creased scru­tiny from na­tional politi­cians and pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Last month, the UK’s Con­ser­va­tive Party Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, which aims to ad­vise and de­velop the party’s for­eign pol­icy, launched an in­quiry into Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes, most of which op­er­ate on univer­sity cam­puses.

The com­mis­sion, which is chaired by Con­ser­va­tive MP Fiona Bruce, said the in­quiry will “at­tempt to pro­vide an as­sess­ment of the ben­e­fits or risks of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes, iden­tify so­lu­tions to ad­dress any such risks and seek ideas on al­ter­na­tives for pro­vid­ing Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­tural education”.

The UK in­quiry was launched just weeks af­ter the US’ Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion an­nounced that it was in­ves­ti­gat­ing Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes around the coun­try re­gard­ing con­cerns that the cen­tres are part of covert spy­ing and in­flu­enc­ing op­er­a­tions.

Florida se­na­tor Marco Ru­bio also urged univer­si­ties in the state to ter­mi­nate their agree­ments with the cen­tres, warn­ing of China’s “grow­ing for­eign in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions” in the US, “par­tic­u­larly in our aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions”.

There has also been in­creas­ing con­cern about the in­flu­ence of China on Aus­tralian univer­si­ties in re­cent months. Last year, the gov- ern­ment in­tro­duced new anti-trea­son laws that would re­port­edly re­quire re­searchers to reg­is­ter pub­licly as for­eign agents if they re­ceived for­eign funds and en­gaged in po­lit­i­cal lob­by­ing.

Bene­dict Rogers, deputy chair of the Con­ser­va­tive Party Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, said: “We have be­come in­creas­ingly con­cerned about the in­flu­ence which Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes have on re­strict­ing aca­demic free­dom and free­dom of ex­pres­sion in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions around the world.

“This was par­tic­u­larly high­lighted in the new doc­u­men­tary, In the Name of Con­fu­cius, about the in­flu­ence of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes in Canada. We there­fore de­cided to hold a screen­ing of this doc­u­men­tary be­cause, although it fo­cuses on Canada, the is­sues are rel­e­vant wher­ever Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes are es­tab­lished, in­clud­ing the UK.”

In the Name of Con­fu­cius is a one-hour doc­u­men­tary by Toron­to­based film-maker and jour­nal­ist Doris Liu, which bills it­self as an ex­am­i­na­tion of “the Chi­nese govern­ment’s multi-bil­lion dol­lar Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute pro­gramme and the grow­ing global con­tro­versy at aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions around the world as schol­ars, par­ents and oth­ers ques­tion the pro­gram’s po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and pur­pose”.

Mr Rogers said: “Our hope is that by screen­ing the film, hold­ing a hear­ing and invit­ing writ­ten sub­mis­sions from ex­perts, we will be able to ob­tain a clear pic­ture of the truth about Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes and their im­pact on education in the UK. We will make rec­om­men­da­tions based on the ev­i­dence we re­ceive. With­out pre­judg­ing our con­clu­sions or rec­om­men­da­tions, we hope that the Bri­tish govern­ment will take this is­sue se­ri­ously and will act upon our find­ings.”

Christo­pher Hughes, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, who spe­cialises in China, said that Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes are “now be­ing politi­cised as Western gov­ern­ments and politi­cians are be­com­ing more con­cerned about eco­nomic and se­cu­rity con­cerns re­lated to China”.

“Some of this is driven by China’s trade prac­tices and some of it is driven by in­creas­ing con­cerns over how Xi Jin­ping is be­hav­ing, clamp­ing down on do­mes­tic dis­sent and us­ing China’s eco­nomic re­sources to ex­pand its geopo­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence,” he said.

Christo­pher Bald­ing, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Pek­ing Univer­sity HSBC Busi­ness School, said that the in­ves­ti­ga­tions mean “a lot of univer­si­ties are go­ing to look very closely at what it means to part­ner with the Chi­nese govern­ment”.

While Pro­fes­sor Bald­ing thought that vast num­bers of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute clo­sures would be “an un­likely sce­nario”, he said “it is very likely that [univer­si­ties] will see much more scru­tiny”, which might re­sult in the in­sti­tutes or their em­ploy­ees be­ing re­quired to “reg­is­ter as for­eign agents”.

Mar­shall Sahlins, Charles F Grey dis­tin­guished ser­vice pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Chicago and au­thor of the 2015 book Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes: Aca­demic Mal­ware, led the protest that re­sulted in his univer­sity sus­pend­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­new its Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute con­tract in 2014.

He said that in the US Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes are caught up as “part of a larger grow­ing trade war with China” and, as a re­sult, there is likely to be a rise in the num­ber of univer­si­ties that “fail to re­new Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute con­tracts”. The cen­tres will also likely shift to­wards Con­fu­cius Class­rooms in pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, rather than in­sti­tutes based at univer­si­ties, he said.

Last year, the right- lean­ing Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Schol­ars in the US pub­lished the re­port Out­sourced to China: Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes and Soft Power in Amer­i­can Higher Education, in which it called for “all univer­si­ties” to “close their Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes”.

Rachelle Peter­son, au­thor of the re­port and pol­icy di­rec­tor at the NAS, said that the de­vel­op­ments show that “fi­nally law­mak­ers are pay­ing at­ten­tion” to con­cerns over the cen­tres and “the world is watch­ing to see how col­leges and univer­si­ties will re­spond”.

“Col­lege pres­i­dents have long

con­vinced them­selves that they can han­dle the risks of part­ner­ing with the Chi­nese govern­ment via Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes. The flurry of in­ves­ti­ga­tions… shows that there is strong ev­i­dence that col­leges and univer­si­ties are not, in fact, able to han­dle those risks,” she said.

But Stephen Dun­nett, vice provost for in­ter­na­tional education at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo and cochair of the board of ad­vis­ers at the univer­sity’s Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute, said the univer­sity has “not wit­nessed or ex­pe­ri­enced any of the neg­a­tive prac­tices – sup­pres­sion of free­dom of speech or med­dling in the univer- sity cur­ricu­lum by (Con­fu­cius In­sti­tute head­quar­ters) Han­ban, for ex­am­ple – that are al­leged in the re­port”.

He added that he did not think that the in­ves­ti­ga­tions would “come up with any cred­i­ble ev­i­dence of the ac­cu­sa­tions”, but said that the fed­eral govern­ment could re­strict visas for Chi­nese teach­ers at Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes “if they re­ally wanted to shut them down”.

Crit­ics “want to make them a li­a­bil­ity” for univer­si­ties, so “we’ll get tired of all of this and then say, is it re­ally worth it?” he added.

In fo­cus the UK, the US and Aus­tralia are among the coun­tries voic­ing con­cerns about Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes

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