China’s Confucius Institutes: Why are they at risk and what could be their replacements?

Rosanna Loyd

It has been revealed that Rishi Sunak vows to shut down all UK-based Confucius Institutes if he becomes the next Prime Minister. Impact’s Rosie Loyd explores what the possible alternatives to these institutes are considering the current landscape in the UK for teaching Mandarin is so heavily reliant on them.

Recently described by Sunak as “the biggest threat” to the UK, China is at risk of having its 30 Confucius Institutes (CIs) closed down in an attempt to tackle the infiltration of China’s presence within UK Universities. CIs are hubs where Mandarin classes and cultural workshops are provided.

For university students studying Mandarin, one of the most useful aspects of CIs is the HSK exam. In recent years, CIs around the globe have come under fire for evidence of espionage and restricting academic freedom within the UK due to pressure from Chinese authorities.

In October 2019, Chinese professor, Song Xinning, was accused of recruiting individuals to China’s intelligence services whilst heading up the now-closed CI at a Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Two months later, VUB announced that it would not be extending its contract with the CI, stating that “continuation of the cooperation is not in line with its principles of free research”.

According to a recent briefing by the China Research Group, the majority of CI teachers are from mainland China and approved by a central body. They are warned not to cover political issues such as what has been coined the “Three T’s” – Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen.

In the UK, there have been several incidents of Chinese interference. Documents including references to Taiwan were removed at a Confucius Institute-organised conference at The University of Nottingham, whilst pressure was put on academics to cancel events relating to Taiwan and Tibet.

What are the alternatives to Confucius Institutes?

  • The Mandarin Excellence Program (MEP) is one example that is under threat from increasing calls for CI ties to be axed. The MEP (2016-2024) has partnerships with the British Council and has teaching delivered by the UCL IOE Confucius Institute for Schools to Year 7 students and above. It currently teaches approximately 8,000 students.
  • Alternative solutions could involve roping in Taiwan. The British Council is supporting Taiwan’s 2030 Bilingual Policy which aims to improve on English proficiency. This is a vision which the UK could very much investigate and mirror by receiving and supporting Taiwanese Mandarin teachers in the UK. 
  • The Taiwan-Europe Connectivity Scholarship is a further example of cultivating language-focussed relationships. Covid-19 travel restrictions have resulted in most UK universities having to send their Mandarin language students to Taiwan through this scholarship. Therefore, the UK would be foolish not to take advantage of this newly opened tunnel and explore what other opportunities Taiwan could offer for UK-based Mandarin learning.

For the moment, it would seem logical for the UK to follow pattern with other countries such as Japan who, on witnessing the numerous closures of CIs in the US, ordered a thorough review of their role within Japanese universities.

Instead, the UK has opted straight for an amendment to the current Higher Education Bill meaning that universities would be required to monitor overseas funding of high-education providers.

China Experts, Kenneth Kinng and Siyuan Li, argue that this move is “being made on the basis of no critical review of the contribution of the CIs to Chinese language and culture provision.”

In order to continue producing generations of Mandarin-speakers who can interact and foster relations with the global powerhouse that is China, there needs to be some thought as to what the UK will fall back on when and if all ties are cut with China’s Confucius Institutes.

Whilst the evidence is clear that the main disputes surrounding CIs are linked to cultural activities and events in UK Universities, the question of whether the Mandarin teaching – a critical element to the UK’s vision of a ‘Global Britain’ – must also get the sack has proven to be debatable. 

Rosanna Loyd

Featured image courtesy of Heidi Fin via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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