“2 – I would close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK—the highest number in the world. Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching at school is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, thereby promoting Chinese soft power.”
Thus reads the second of five tweets in Rishi Sunak’s campaign Twitter thread (which opens with the stark graphic “China is our number one threat”). The sentiment is accompanied by an image of a vibrating microphone, some emphatic red stars, and the “Ready for Rishi” logo, which incorporates both a vertical and horizontal exclamation mark into the typography of the final “i.” Other components of this promised “face down” include the expansion of MI5 and the establishment of an international alliance tackling Chinese security threats. The promises, as may be expected from a leadership bid, are assertive, broad, and somewhat crass when distilled in this format. However, it is this second tweet, and its promise to combat Chinese soft power, that may have the longest term social implications for British-Chinese relations. That is, if Sunak follows through.
The Confucius Institute (CI) program was founded in 2004 with the proclaimed objective of globally promoting Chinese language and cultural education. The program has seen continuous expansion in the last 18 years, now totalling approximately 530 institutes worldwide. There are significantly high numbers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK, powerful English speaking nations with large Chinese diasporas. The majority of the UK’s 30 institutes are attached to British universities, and a further 148 “Confucius Classrooms” are located in secondary schools across the country. As the China Daily points out: “China is not the first to set up such institutes nor does it have a monopoly over overseas cultural promotion.” The statement itself is undeniable, but the paper omits one stark difference: the institutes are partially funded by Hanban (The Office of Chinese Language Council International), which is controlled by CCP Central Propaganda Department, a fact that may not seem worth noting in a Chinese national newspaper, where state funding is the status quo.
In terms of purely “overseas cultural promotion”, the programme is comparable to organisations like the UK’s British Council and Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, founded in 1934 and 1991 respectively. In 2017/18, the British Council received £168 million from the British government, in comparison to the £319 million flushed into Confucius institute by the CCP back in 2014. Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council further differentiates the two programmes: “We are a stand-alone organisation operating out of our own premises. They are being embedded in university campuses. The real question has to be one of independence.”
This unique method of operating through foreign universities has led to concerns that the CCP’s agenda threatens academic freedom. Doris Liu’s investigative documentary In The Name of Confucius premiered in 2017, giving a voice to Sonia Zhao. Zhao was previously a Chinese teacher at the Confucius Institute of Canada’s McCaster University, who left the job and claimed asylum in 2011. She is one of very few CI teachers who have spoken freely about the program. Like many others, she feared for family members remaining in China. Zhao told Liu that she was provided with an “official script” for classroom use, warned to avoid any mention of Tibet and Taiwan, and that if pressed, she “must say that Tibet and Taiwan belong to China,” propagating a CCP narrative with which she strongly disagreed.
Zhao also spoke on the program’s restrictive hiring practices, confirming that employees must have no record of participation in Falun Gong (a peaceful religious movement prohibited by the government) and sign a contract that decrees they will not partake in the movement. The CIs have also come under criticism for wielding censorship over foreign students. In 2021, students protested at the University of Groningen after a professor of Chinese language and culture was contractually censored by Hanban. The protesters felt that the university was being compromised to improve Holland’s trading relationship with China and submitted a 700 signature petition to revoke Groningen’s Confucius Institute. The institute is still running as of August 2022, and sports the website headline: “Groningen Confucius Institute aims to stimulate mutual understanding between China and the Netherlands.”
The Confucius Institute at Oxford Brookes opened in April 2016. It is led by Professor Angus Phillips, a University of Oxford alumnus, alongside Co-Director Hui Hou, and Deputy Director Spring Zhang. We contacted all three for a statement shortly after Sunak’s tweet, but have not received a response. As of yet, no UK-based CI has publicly responded to the Tory hopeful’s denouncement of their “soft power”.
Instead, we spoke to Kevin Wang, an Oxford doctoral candidate with a significant academic knowledge of China, who is currently researching the country’s urban transformation. He hazarded the initial guess that this lack of response may simply be due to understaffing. Wang is British-Chinese and grew up in Edinburgh. When asked if he had ever benefited from the work of the CI program (Scotland has the highest number of institutes per capita) he laughed and offered an uncertain “not to my knowledge”, granting that, although he had attended Chinese Saturday school, it was unlikely that the university oriented program would have outreach with diaspora communities.
Wang believes that Sunak is primarily reacting to the Chinese government’s coercion of British students, an issue which has arguably become less prevalent in the past decade, as academics increasingly practice self-censorship. Regarding the lack of response, Wang also suggests that the British Confucius Institutes, and China more generally, may have come to expect anti-China rhetoric during times of political campaigning and believe that such rhetoric will drop off when the newly stable cabinet readdresses trading relationships. For Wang, this compromise can be shown by the Conservative Government’s gradual acceptance of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic religious minorities in Xinjiang since the last general election in December 2019. Sunak’s hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed; his sudden change from a chief secretary keen to improve trading relationships with China, to a PM hopeful censuring the CIs, has been widely condemned.
Wang expressed his opinion that the Confucius Institutes are, at this point, predominantly just language centres, and therefore the sole impact of closing them will be the detriment to Chinese education in the UK. He attributes this change both to the increasing self-censorship of academics, and to a realisation on China’s behalf that their soft power approach is failing under the West’s growing awareness and resistance. The CIs do not possess the insidious power that Sunak implies as America’s anti-China attitude continues to grow and Britain follows suit. Wang draws attention to more direct threats such as reports of increased Chinese cyber espionage from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ—which Sunak’s fourth tweet pledging to “build a new international alliance of free nations to tackle Chinese cyber-threats” confidently glosses over.
In a world where China is increasingly competing with the US for dominant superpower status, and where an informed Western understanding of China is becoming ever more important, the removal of the Confucius Institutes could do more harm than good. As Sunak notes, “nearly all Mandarin lessons are Confucius funded.” Is Sunak shooting his country in the foot by compromising the future of Sino-British affairs?
Rana Mitter, a British historian and political scientist based at the University of Oxford’s St Cross college, is a leading expert on the Republic of China and the Director of the University China Centre. Mitter has expressed concerns that Sunak’s plan is “not very thought through” in the current political zeitgeist, where the UK “needs people who read and understand Chinese” more than ever. The lack of any contingency plan is cause for concern. Sunak has not proposed an alternative to the Confucius Institutes, which could result in a dearth of understanding and an increasing danger of Western-Chinese relationships becoming reductionist, with perceptions becoming binary. Without the presence of a thorough, nuanced understanding of China —its language, politics, and in particular its history—it is likely that this void may be replaced by a simplistic outlook on China as merely an adversarial “totalitarian” state. Furthermore, the removal of Confucius classrooms in state secondary schools will make Chinese education a far more privileged, less diverse area of academia, restricted to private schools and competitive undergraduate courses, likely to lead to increasingly polarising policies down the line.
Part of the issue is not simply the policy proposed by Sunak, but rather the lack of acknowledgement about how serious a proposal it is. His five-step “facedown” lays out a strategy of decoupling: a binary split between China and the West. However, the debate over different statecraft approaches—whether decoupling or detente—is a highly contentious one; not something to be taken lightly, or as an election policy designed to pander to a tiny electorate of 100,000 Tory members. If China does pose a threat to the West, then that is all the more reason to be educated about it and understand it. If Sunak believes that Confucius Institutes are more damaging than they are effective, then he must also acknowledge the gravity of removing them in totality.