China is back on the agenda in Westminster. Whether it's Boris's trip to India or a Beijing-based take-over of Newport Wafer Fab, it's hard to escape the flutter of the five-starred red flag. And there’s few signs of that abating any time soon, with leading US Senator Marco Rubio launching an attack this month on American universities that entered into financial arrangements with China-based entities, including those directly governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). According to Rubio, such educational investment is 'all part of Beijing’s plan to overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful nation.'
Naturally, Steerpike wanted to find out just how much the CCP has invested at centres of higher learning here in the UK. One of the ways China has sought to extend its overseas cultural influence is by Confucius Institutes. These centres run educational and cultural promotion programs at UK universities funded and arranged by Hanban – a government entity affiliated to the Chinese Ministry of Education. In July 2020 Hanban rebranded as the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation after accusations of overseas propaganda and undue influence. Senior CCP official Li Changchun once remarked that Confucius Institutes are ‘an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up.’
Now a series of Freedom of Information requests by Mr S show that more than £24 million was accepted in funding by 17 UK universities for Confucius Institutes from Hanban and the Chinese Ministry of Education between 2006 and 2021. Edinburgh University came top with £6 million in funds, followed by Strathclyde University with £5.6 million, which included £1.2 million for a building renovation alongside £4.4 million in operations and teacher recruitment funds. Lancaster was highest in England with £1.5 million from organisations affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Most universities now no longer use funding from Hanban for these institutes. Leeds University, which received £950,000, confirmed that since 2020 its funding route from Confucius Institute Headquarters has now switched to its Chinese partner, the University of International Business and Economics. Similarly, Aberdeen University received its funding directly from Wuhan University in 2021 with no funds coming directly from the Chinese Ministry of Education since 2020. Future funding for 2022 will come from Wuhan University, rather than from the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Advocates point to the role of Confucius Institutes in teaching Mandarin — a much needed skill in short supply here in Britain. But there are increasing concerns about the Chinese government's suppression of academic freedom and whether such schemes risk undermining the independence of universities. Tory MP Alicia Kearns has previously warned that: 'The Chinese Communist Party doesn't invest for free and without bondage – every penny comes with strings attached.' In August 2020 the State Department moved to designate the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in the U.S. as a foreign mission of China after a string of universities in America and Europe axed their programmes following several controversies.
With Tory MPs now moving to back an amendment to mandate transparency in university donations, will a similar fate befall the remaining Confucius Institutes here in the UK?