Protesting Spanish professor 'warned university' over Confucius Institutes

Journalism professor Mar Llera makes waves with protest at University of Seville inauguration ceremony.
By Kitty Wang for RFA Mandarin
Protesting Spanish professor 'warned university' over Confucius Institutes Journalism professor Mar Llera (right) and research team member Santiago Ramírez (second right) hold up banners at the inauguration ceremony for the University of Seville’s new Confucius Institute, April 8, 2024.

Updated at 9:40 am EDT on April 19, 2024

A university professor who gatecrashed the opening ceremony of a new Confucius Institute at Spain's Seville University last week tried to warn the school authorities for years that the language and cultural centers have been linked to the Chinese Communist Party's influence operations, she told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview.

Journalism professor Mar Llera jumped onto the dais along with a research team member during the ceremony, as the university's rector, Miguel Ángel Castro was welcoming participants to the ceremony on April 8, holding up a poster protesting the opening.

She told security guards she wouldn't be moved, and remained in place for several minutes, before they tried again, this time reassuring her that the protest had been registered by several media organizations. At that point she agreed to leave.

Ángel Castro said in a statement after the inauguration that he "regretted the attempt to hinder the event," and that Llera's protest "does not fit into our most dignified spaces."

The Confucius Institute will teach Chinese, and offer "cultural dissemination," and will offer a "specialized library" for those interested in Chinese language and culture.

The University of Seville appears to be bucking a global trend in recent years to terminate contracts with Confucius Institutes.

In 2019, Britain's ruling Conservative Party called for a review of the institutes' presence on university campuses, while a 2019 report from a U.S. Senate subcommittee found that they could constitute a threat to university life and freedom of speech in the U.S., as their funding comes "with strings attached."

The report found that the Chinese Communist Party has poured more than U.S.$158 million into U.S. universities to fund Confucius Institutes since 2006, and recommended they be shut down if there is no way to improve transparency in their dealings with U.S. universities.

Subsequent pushback prompted many schools to terminate their agreements, and the number of Confucius Institutes in the United States has plummeted from more than 100 to around a dozen, according to a report last year by the Hudson Institute.

Longstanding concerns

The April 8 protest wasn't the first time Llera, who has a research interest in China and Taiwan, has tried to make her concerns known.

"We felt obliged to protest," said Llera, who said she waited more than three years to get a meeting with the vice-chancellor to raise her concerns. 

"One month ago, the vice chancellor, knowing that they were going to open this institute without being informed, received us. I should acknowledge that I was late because I was confused [about the venue.] So we had just 15 minutes," she said. 

"During these 15 minutes I explained that, first of all, 130 Confucius Institutes have been kind of closed down all around the world and this is because ... there is evidence shown by the intelligence services that they pose a threat to our national security," she said in an interview with RFA Mandarin on April 17. "They spy on scholars and students."

"They instrumentalize these Confucius Institutes as a means for sharp power, to infiltrate our institutions, democratic institutions, and to subvert their functioning," she said.

But her words fell on deaf ears, Llera said.

"After all this evidence, she couldn't reply, she couldn't provide me with any counter-argument, and she just said, 'we will pay attention to what's going on.’" 

"She finished by stressing that as a vice-chancellor, she doesn't want to be involved in politics because university and politics are different things," she said. "Of course she's involved in politics. She has a position of power. She's carrying out educational and public policies in a public institution."

Not backing down

The vice-chancellor didn't mention to Llera that the school was planning to open its very own Confucius Institute just a couple of weeks after that meeting.

"The vice-chancellor said, we don't have any premises, any venue, any appropriate building to carry out these activities. So we're not going to do anything. And she was clearly lying to us," Llera said. "We felt outraged. We felt the moral responsibility of carrying out a public protest and we wanted it to have an impact because we know that most people in Spain ... don't agree with policies by our authorities."

Seville University authorities did not respond to RFA's request for comment on Llera's assertions

Llera remains convinced she did the right thing.

"I felt such a determination, such a peace, inner peace, even joy, I was really bold. I felt that truth was with me," she said. "I felt really blessed by the spirits of those who are suffering in China and who have suffered [and] battered by this brutal regime."

Llera has personal experience of what she called the insidious impact of Confucius Institutes on university campuses.

"When I was in Granada in 2015, the director of the Confucius Institute, or someone who was in charge of these activities, I don't remember the specific position, he told us that he couldn't be photographed together with Hong Kong political dissidents due to his position. this was self-censorship," she said.

An invitation to her university she extended to Alex Chow, a political dissident from the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, brought a warning from a professor with consulting ties to Beijing that "you know that you're risking your career. I mean, your academic career, you can encounter obstacles," Llera said.

"He was really threatening to me, sort of smiling and saying, 'I'm surprised how naïve you are.'"

So far, Llera hasn't received any threats, indirect or otherwise.

"There was a person two hours after the protest [who] was telling me off," she said. "But I didn't care."

"But I didn't receive any warning. They know that a lot of media are publishing my articles, or articles related to my activities," Llera said.

"And they know that we are right and they are wrong."

Edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Corrects first name of Hong Kong activist Alex Chao and adjusts quote of Mar Llera.


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