Scottish universities have been urged to review their hosting of Confucius Institutes after Stockholm University became the latest western organisation to cut ties with the Beijing-backed language schools.
Campaigners say pressure to toe the Chinese government line on topics such as Tibet and Taiwan makes the institutes incompatible with academic freedom.
Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities host Confucius Institutes, with a fifth due to open at Heriot-Watt. Strathclyde also has a dedicated unit to promote Mandarin in schools.
Mandarin is gaining popularity in Scottish secondary schools, with more than 300 pupils taking exams last year, amid a general decline in other languages.
Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said he was worried an “infrastructure” was developing in Scotland to push the Chinese state’s interests to the exclusion of other views. “Scottish politicians need to think seriously about what is going on at Confucius Institutes and what we need to do so things don’t go in the wrong direction,” Mr Johnstone told The Herald.
The institutes, which number 476, including 24 in the UK, are funded by the central government through the Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban. This insists its work is purely for language learning.
However, Hanban’s head, Xi Lu, in an interview in December, confirmed all teachers at Confucius Institutes would follow official Beijing lines. “Every mainland teacher we send, all of them will say Taiwan belongs to China. We should have one China. No hesitation,” Ms Xi told the BBC.
Unlike other cultural agencies such as the British Council or Goethe-Institut of Germany, Confucius Institutes operate within established schools, providing teachers, funding and educational materials.
Some partners in the West have ended their collaborations recently, citing concerns that the institutes restrict academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and promote the political aims of the Communist Party.
Toronto’s district school board scrapped plans for a partnership in October, while Pennsylvania State University and University of Chicago had already made similar announcements.
A spokesman for Edinburgh University denied there had been any loss of academic freedom from the way Confucius Institutes are run.
Critics say all Hanban teachers, as state employees, are obliged to report all questions of Tibet and other human rights issues. Ms Xi admitted such questions were tracked.
Emma Lonsdale, a second year student of Chinese at Edinburgh University, said the issue of Tibet had never been raised in language classes. “It could get very awkward very quickly if it came up. We also did not discuss the Scottish independence referendum.
“On the other hand, our (Chinese) lecturer refers to Taiwan, not Taiwan province, as it is officially called in Beijing. We have also deconstructed old propaganda films and looked at books and films that were banned until recently. I wouldn’t say the Chinese Communist Party agenda is being pushed.” CAPTION: Pressure? The Potala Palace in Tibet. The Chinese government’s position on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan has led to questions over the UK Confucius Institutes (Photo: iStock)