What Fate For China’s Confucius Institutes Under New PM?

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Originally set up to promote Chinese language and culture and project China’s ‘soft power’, China’s Confucius Institutes have come under scrutiny in the United Kingdom, with prominent politicians calling for all institutes at British universities to be closed. However, their fate is not yet sealed.
A bill on planned curbs on influence operations by foreign governments making its way through the British parliament could have an impact, despite a perceived softening of the government’s stand on China under the country’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
According to Andreas Fulda, associate professor at Nottingham University and an expert on Europe-China relations, universities in the UK “are a bit stalled now” on the issue of Confucius Institutes. “There is a wait-and-see attitude in British universities in terms of [waiting for] what the government will say,” he told University World News.
Shifting Stances At The Top
Frequent changes at the head of government – the UK has had three prime ministers since September – have contributed to uncertainty for universities. Liz Truss, who took over for a brief period from Boris Johnson as prime minister in September before being replaced by Rishi Sunak last month, was noticeably hawkish on China.
“Universities had to keep up with that, but the newest report is that he [Sunak] is backpedalling on things like declaring China as a ‘threat’,” noted Fulda.
In Bali this week for the Group of 20 world leaders’ summit, Sunak downgraded his description of China as a systemic “threat” – as the US and other allies do – to a systemic “challenge”.
Commentators have noted he wants less confrontational UK-China relations, even as his ruling Conservative Party has moved towards a stronger position on combatting China’s influence on business and academia.
Unlike Truss’s hardline stance towards China, Sunak said he still wanted a working relationship with Beijing, describing it as “an indisputable fact of the global economy”. This is seen as a rollback from the position he articulated in July when he was still campaigning for leadership of the party and promised to “kick the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] out of our universities”.
Sunak’s apparent softening led to former Conservative Party chairman Iain Duncan Smith this week accusing him of “appeasing” the Chinese, a term used during World War II to refer to those who did not stand up against the threat of Nazi Germany.
There are still strong signals of scepticism regarding China from the current government, most notably from Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat and the UK’s intelligence agencies.
On 16 November, Ken McCallum, head of Britain’s domestic security agency MI5, said in his annual threat assessment “as part of efforts to manipulate opinion in its favour, Chinese authorities were also ‘cultivating assets’ in academia, business and in parliament”.
“There is no good reason for which a country such as the UK ought to put its higher education sector at risk by being dependent on a foreign government for the teaching of a major world language,” the report concluded.

Though it has been widely discussed by academics, universities have been reluctant to comment publicly on the report, not wishing to spotlight their own activities with Confucius Institutes. “They are hiding behind each other, hoping not to draw attention to themselves,” said a London academic who asked for anonymity.

Others noted that while foreign students from China were important, the UK’s colonial links to Hong Kong and the arrival in the UK of over 100,000 Hong Kong people since Beijing imposed the draconian national security law in Hong Kong in July 2020, has meant Hong Kong students are also an important lobbying force against the Confucius Institutes.

It will impact public discourse in the long term, said Fulda, “because Britain suddenly has an entire constituency of [Chinese] regime critics”.

Some China mainland students are often suspected of carrying out surveillance activities against Hong Kong students in UK universities and passing information on to Chinese diplomats, and tensions have erupted between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students, notably at Sheffield University.

To ban or not to ban?

Not everyone is in favour of an outright ban on Confucius Institutes. Dunning noted that the report “doesn’t explicitly, repeatedly call for a ban. But we do propose various ways of putting an end to the Confucius Institute programme.”

For example, the report recommends an amendment to the upcoming Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which would affect the UK’s Confucius Institutes by demanding that the agreements that govern them contain certain terms. This would likely lead to the removal of Confucius Institutes from universities, he said.

Bob Seely, a Conservative MP and a member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, said during a 12 October panel discussion on the report: “I still think there is an open question about whether Confucius Institutes have a future in the UK – I remain sceptical.

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