Britain's ruling Conservative Party has warned that China's network of Confucius Institutes, which are often embedded on university campuses around the world, could threaten freedom of expression and national security by extending the presence and influence of the Chinese Communist Party far beyond its borders.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission called for a review of all agreements between British institutions and the Confucius Institutes, saying that Beijing's educational and cultural centers have already given rise to incidents of censorship or suppression of discussion.
"The evidence we received raises very serious questions about the influence which Confucius Institutes may have in British universities and schools," Commission chair and MP Fiona Bruce said.
"We welcome and encourage language teaching and cultural exchange, but we believe a review is necessary to assess whether Confucius Institutes represent a threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression, other basic rights and indeed national security," Bruce said in a statement on the Commission's website.
The report calls for a freeze on any further agreements with Confucius Institutes pending the proposed review, as well measures to ensure greater transparency and accountability to U.K. institutions and the general public.
China is continuing to extend its "soft power" around the world through a number of carefully planned strategies, including Confucius Institutes and the government-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) on university campuses around the world, academics have warned.
Confucius Institutes may appear at first glance to resemble the British Council, the Goethe Institut, or the Alliance Franςaise, but their potential threat to academic freedom lies specifically in the fact that they base themselves out of universities, according to U.S. university professors.
And while their European counterparts are also clearly aligned with "soft power" objectives and national agendas, the Confucius Institutes report back to the Hanban, a body under the direct control of China's Ministry of Education with its own embedded party committee.
Democracy under attack
Last week, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Catherine Cortez Masto reintroduced legislation aimed at countering Chinese government influence operations in the U.S.
"Our democratic processes are increasingly under attack from authoritarian governments,” Cortez Masto said. "We must fully understand those threats to effectively combat them."
"This bipartisan bill will raise awareness about the threat Chinese government interference poses to democratic societies around the world, while also preparing our government to develop policy solutions that protect our political processes and our national security," she said.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said Confucius Institutes are a part of China's influence strategy and propaganda effort.
"They ... want to normalize the one-party dictatorship model of the Chinese Communist Party, under the guise of Chinese language-teaching," Lui said. "The valuable thing about freedom of speech and publication is that they allow different voices to exist together."
The report quotes former Chinese Communist Party propaganda czar Li Changchun, who described Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up,” and Hanban director-general Xu Lin, who said: "Confucius Institutes … are an important part of soft power. Because we want to expand our influences, we do not deny this."
Foothold for control
Zhang Tao, media and communications lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, said Confucius Institutes "allow the Chinese authorities to gain a foothold for the exercise of control over the study of China and the Chinese language."
"From its organization and funding to textbooks and staff, the Confucius Institute is an extension of the Chinese education system, directly controlled by the state and having the same ideological and propaganda roles as schools and universities in China," Zhang was quoted as saying in the report.
The report also cites the termination of a number of Confucius Institute contracts by universities around the world.
At least 27 universities and one school board have cut ties with Confucius Institutes, including Stockholm University, Copenhagen Business School, Stuttgart Media University, the University of Hohenheim, the University of Lyon, the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania University, the University of Michigan, McMaster University, and the Toronto School Board, the Commission said in a statement.
The report, based on testimony from academics, former diplomats, human rights activists and researchers, also highlights the banning of discussion by Confucius Institutes of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Tibet ,and Taiwan.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.