Originally set up to promote Chinese language and culture and project China’s ‘soft power’, China’s Confucius Institutes have come under close 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”.
Tugendhat and Duncan Smith were both sanctioned by the Chinese last year, along with a number of academics, for criticising Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Responding to a question from his own party during a debate in the House of Commons on 1 November, Tugendhat announced that Sunak was “looking to close” the 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK. He added: “Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the UK.”
Proposed legislative changes
Tugendhat also pointed to the National Security Bill currently going through the UK parliament as evidence of the direction in which the government was headed.
The draft bill, which makes it a criminal offence to “improperly interfere with the UK’s democracy and civil society”, for example, through disinformation, also now includes a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme in terms of which organisations with close ties to overseas governments would be required to register as agents of a foreign power.
In addition, a group of some 20 China-sceptic UK parliamentarians linked to the China Research Group and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China tabled an amendment to the government’s controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to require universities to monitor the overseas funding of higher education providers, including the Chinese-funded institutes.
The current draft of the bill would provide the government with arbitrary powers to terminate language or cultural programmes at universities if they were deemed to threaten freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Similar measures are already in place in Australia and the United States, with Confucius Institutes preferring to shut down, or register as separate entities, rather than have their Chinese employees registered as ‘foreign agents’.
UK academics also say there is not much universities can do if the National Security legislation is passed.