Updated: Jul 26
There are no off-shoots of the Chinese state that are integrated more closely into British society than Confucius Institutes.
The United Kingdom is host to 30 Confucius Institutes – more than any other country. Their ostensive purpose is to teach Mandarin and promote Chinese culture. These 30 institutes have been funded to the tune of perhaps £46,000,000 by Chinese sources, mostly the Chinese Government. Their influence extends into well over 100 schools, into politics, academia and business. They exist within a set of institutions that, during the last decade, have become increasingly involved with China in one way or another: British universities.
The position of Confucius Institutes inside British universities constitutes one of several fundamental differences between them and the UK’s closest equivalent, the British Council. The British Council routinely promotes individuals, institutions, events and programmes that embody free speech and produce fierce criticism of British governments past and present. Most of its turnover comes from teaching and exams, and it operates in China out of four standalone offices.
By contrast, Confucius Institutes are formally part of the propaganda system of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are financially dependent upon funding from the Chinese Government and, in general, are subject to People’s Republic of China (PRC) speech restrictions. Yet Confucius Institutes can trade on the reputation of host universities such as Edinburgh and Manchester, or the London School of Economics – institutions known as beacons of free scholarly enquiry and academic excellence.
This situation highlights the difference between the tolerant values of the Western academy and the intolerant values of the CCP, a difference which for too long has been ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. It is the position of Confucius Institutes in universities that explains one of the main findings identified by this report, and makes it all the more worrying.
That finding is as follows: the UK’s Confucius Institutes engage in activities far beyond the remit of ‘language and culture’ that is often attributed to them. Confucius Institutes are not ‘language and culture’ centres and are not mere tools of ‘soft power’. This is suggested by names such as ‘The Confucius Institute of Science and Technology Innovation at the University of Huddersfield’, ‘The Confucius Institute for Scotland in the University of Edinburgh’ and ‘The Confucius Institute for Business London’.
Operating from under the umbrella of prestigious universities, Confucius Institutes have been informing government policy and politicians, assisting the establishment of science and technology partnerships, offering consultancy services to business, promoting trade, running academic events supposed to shine a light on Chinese policy, and cooperating with UK organisations that work with the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a CCP agency the interference activities of which were recently highlighted by MI5. One Institute even runs a commercial acupuncture clinic: it has also organised events in Parliament. Another Institute is a partnership with a company overseen directly by the CCP’s Propaganda Department.
In spite of the political attention paid to Confucius Institutes in the past six months – and the press and academic attention paid during the last six years – this pattern has gone unnoticed and its ramifications have been ignored. Relatedly, it has been argued that criticism of Confucius Institutes in the UK is unfounded because the number of problematic situations or incidents identified is low. This is because no one has looked properly. This investigative report is intended to fill the gap.
The report argues that, far from being a gateway to ‘mutual understanding’, Confucius Institutes threaten Britain’s capacity to understand China and to devise a sensible policy towards the country and its institutions. This affects host universities, business big and small, Holyrood, Stormont and the Senedd in Wales, Westminster and Whitehall, the media and the general public.
A single illustration suffices to introduce the evidence for this assertion. Those Confucius Institutes that express a desire to ‘inform’ the UK about China have, over the past decade, hosted many hundreds of talks and events. Only a handful relate to the 100 million plus inhabitants of China who are not a member of the Han ethnic majority – for example, Uyghurs or Tibetans – or to the half of China’s national territory where such people have historically dwelt as majorities with political power.
The failure to treat these topics is positively damaging to the UK’s understanding of China, given that the colonisation of these peoples and that territory over the past hundred years constitutes one of the most important aspects of recent Chinese history without the study of which no understanding of modern China is nearly complete.
The provision of information about Taiwan, a country whose situation demands very urgent thought and planning by the UK Government, academia and industry, is also essentially non-existent. Likewise, there has been no treatment of the predicament of Hong Kong, even as the CCP’s crackdown in the city has caused dismay in the UK and demanded a complex governmental response.
Very few people read Chinese-language sources relating to Confucius Institutes. They make clear that Confucius Institutes are designed to aid the CCP’s integration into universities, and to exploit this integration in order to shape how China is understood and what strategy is adopted – by universities and by all who depend on their intellectual output – in light of this ‘understanding’.
British universities have been subject to this programme whilst undergoing structural changes, such as commercialisation and internationalisation. The Confucius Institute programme has exploited these changes and contributed to them. This report finds Confucius Institutes have been instrumental in building and supporting their host universities’ broader relationships with China, including in relation to science, technology and innovation. Confucius Institutes are a central motif of the broader pattern of British universities’ enlarged dependence on and collaboration with Chinese institutions. Confucius Institutes may stand out, may be an easy target, but this broader pattern poses a broader and more complex problem.
These conclusions about Confucius Institutes have an important context. A succession of British Governments have encouraged and vigorously promoted the developments related here. This largely exculpates many of the individuals mentioned in this report. It also represents a serious failure of policy. China is now routinely described as the greatest long-term threat to the UK – yet we recently spent nearly a decade increasing our dependence on and building deep partnerships with the country. Conservative politicians are especially responsible for this, and their party has not taken responsibility and has sought to shift the blame to universities. This is counterproductive.
In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Confucius would disapprove greatly of the Chinese Communist Party. The use of his name to whitewash the CCP’s reputation and give it a foothold in institutions dedicated to free enquiry is subversive and intolerable. Strong action is required.
To read more, download the PDF above. Sam Dunning is a freelance researcher and journalist with a special interest in China. Anson Kwong is a freelance researcher and journalist based in London.