Authorities in Sweden are to close down the last Confucius classroom run by a branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, making the country the first in Europe to shut down a key area of China's soft power, according to media reports.
Sweden's Radio Kaliber reported that the Confucius classroom at Falkenberg's high school will shut after eight years teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture to students.
The school has said it won't be renewing the agreement when it expires at the end of the current semester.
The move follows the closure of all Confucius Institutes -- which are staffed, funded and have curricula designed by Beijing -- at Swedish universities.
Hanban -- which reports to China's cabinet, the State Council -- ran 548 Confucius institutes and 1,193 Confucius classrooms around the world at the end of 2018.
Stockholm University was the first to open a Confucius Institute in 2005, but closed it a decade later citing Chinese insistence on greater control over the running of the institute.
Sweden's Luleå University of Technology terminated its agreement with Hanban at the end of last year.
London's Times newspaper quoted Björn Jerdén, chairman of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Institute, as saying that attitudes towards China are changing in Sweden as bilateral ties have been soured by the jailing of Swedish national Gui Minhai after he published books from Hong Kong that were banned by Beijing.
Tougher view of China
Finland-based democracy activist Li Fang said there was still scant awareness in Finland about the institutes, which they described as tools for Chinese Communist Party's global outreach, but that the local media has taken interest in the story.
"[A recent TV] report gave examples of teaching materials used [by Confucius Institutes and classrooms] in other countries, which were imbued with the Chinese Communist Party's ideological outreach [campaign]," Li said.
"They also spoke to Sinologists in Finland who said Confucius Institutes are vehicles through which China deploys its ideology and influence; they are tools of its soft power."
U.S. political risk management consultant Ross Feingold said the closure of the Confucius classroom was the result of a gradual change in Sweden's China policy.
Sweden is taking a much tougher view of China as a result of that process, Feingold told RFA.
He said the jailing of Gui Minhai for 10 years had clearly had an effect on that process.
China's pugnacious ambassador in Stockholm also hurt Beijing's cause with a series of angry and rude comments on his embassy's website and in interviews with Swedish media.
“We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we got shotguns,” Gui Congyou told Swedish public radio in late 2019.
Concerns are growing globally over the ruling Chinese Communist Party's bid to limit academic freedom, far beyond China's borders on the campuses of overseas universities.
China is putting financial, political and diplomatic pressure on British universities to comply with Beijing's political agenda, both directly and indirectly, the U.K. parliament warned in a November 2019 report.
Wariness in UK, US
The report said China was trying to use its influence to shape what is studied at U.K. universities by adding to conditions to existing research and educational funding agreements.
Funding and investment agreements could, for example, include "explicit or implicit limits" on what subjects could be discussed, while institutions had also been pressured not to invite certain speakers, or not to disseminate certain papers, the report found.
And the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the Chinese government "has stepped up surveillance of diaspora communities, including through controls on students and scholars from China."
In October 2019, authorities in Belgium declined to renew the visa of a Renmin University professor who had headed the Confucius Institute in Brussels for three years. Song Xinning said he had been told that he had "supported Chinese intelligence agencies’ spying and interference activities in Belgium."
Beijing responded by saying that the reports that Song had been engaged in spying were "false" and distorted.
A U.S. Senate subcommittee warned last March that Confucius Institutes could affect academic freedom, as the cultural and study centers' funding usually came with strings attached.
The United States Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations said in a recent report that the Chinese Communist Party has poured more than U.S.$158 million into U.S. universities to fund Confucius Institutes since 2006, but that the funding came with strings attached that could compromise academic freedom.
Contracts signed with universities typically contain provisions that state both Chinese and the host nation's law apply, limit public disclosure of the contract and terminate the contract if the host institution takes actions that the Confucius Institute doesn't like.
This means effectively that all teachers, events and speakers at Confucius Institutes are approved by Beijing, even on foreign soil.
Teachers at the institutes are recruited and selected by the Hanban, and sign contracts promising not to damage China's national interests while overseas. They are also banned from taking part in activities or organizations proscribed by China.
China has denied that Confucius Institutes interfere with academic freedom, and said that the centers will remain a key government policy.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.