Academics have predicted a crackdown on Confucius Institutes across the West, as the UK becomes the latest country to launch 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 possible 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’s 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 government 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 Toronto-based 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 certainly 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 co-chair 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 university 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” against the centres, 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.