FOR decades we have been ignoring the dragon in the room. More accurately, we have been feeding it. While all eyes are focused on Russia, a hostile country with an economy ten times larger is treated with kid gloves.
This is China, of course. A recent report by the Henry Jackson Society think-tank brings concerns around the country’s influence into sharper relief. Focusing specifically on the role of Confucius Institutes (CIs) in British universities, the authors paint a worrying picture.
Ostensibly created for the purpose of language teaching, the influence and activities of some CIs is worthy of concern. Fundamentally, these organisations are effectively arms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), despite attempts at trying to obfuscate their management structure. Hiring practices by CIs ensure staff, ethics and politics align with the ideological framework pushed by Beijing.
That a flood of USSR-backed Russian-language academies might have raised some eyebrows during the Cold War need hardly be mentioned. However, when it is the CCP, little dissent is heard.
Funded to the tune of approximately £45million since the founding of the first CI at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2005, the organisation acts as a front for Beijing’s interests. Only four out of 30 CIs sticks solely to language tuition, with others entering into the realms of business advisory, professional services and networking opportunities.
Connections to the United Work Front Department and the Propaganda Department of the CCP, money sent to British politicians and a growth in intellectual and scientific partnerships between UK and Chinese universities are all features that have grown in recent years as China attempts to cultivate its image abroad and to secure access to valuable Western intellectual property.
We have been all too often let down by our elite’s willing facilitation of this quiet Chinese expansionism. The University of Sheffield, for example, has links with numerous Chinese universities and institutes, and has co-operated with the Chinese space programme. As the Henry Jackson Society report rightly notes: ‘There are few scientific areas that have more obvious military applications.’
Other universities have signed agreements to form CIs with clauses that uphold the ‘One China’ policy – i.e. that Taiwan is an inviolable part of communist Chinese territory. It is a peculiar demand for a group allegedly seeking only to teach Mandarin. Elsewhere, CI course graduates from the London School of Economics have been hosted in the House of Lords.
Those involved in CIs try to paint them as carbon copies of institutions such as the British Council, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, or France’s Alliance française. Such claims remain unconvincing amid the active participation of Communist Party members and network of links tying together broader pro-CCP propaganda efforts.
At one CI-hosted event at the Chinese Embassy, Chinese children, dressed in their Young Pioneer (a branch of the Communist Youth League) kit, were told to ‘have the motherland at heart wherever they might be’.
Universities maintain that CIs have no influence on their curricula. They remain happy, however, to host CI events on topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative and to facilitate CI activities that stray into the realms of business. The CI at the University of Edinburgh describes itself as a ‘national centre to promote educational, economic, and cultural ties between Scotland and China’.
Given that the British government dubbed the People’s Republic of China a ‘systemic competitor’ in its 2021 Integrated Review and is poised to formally designate it a ‘threat’, one wonders whether the promotion of deeper economic ties is advisable.
Such a designation is, of course, about 20 years overdue. China now accounts for approximately 30 per cent of global manufacturing output. Its defence budget is roughly six times that of Russia’s. Yet the deeper those ties become, the more dependent the UK comes on the communist dictatorship sitting in Beijing, and the less able it is to steer its own course.
Chinese spies operating in Westminster have been uncovered ‘donating’ hundreds of thousands of pounds to MPs. There are MPs who happily take Chinese money and promote the work of Beijing’s ‘private’ companies.
These very same firms seek to become integrated with our nation’s vital infrastructure and to buy up UK firms operating in areas of strategic importance. Our new Chancellor, no less, has a Chinese wife who hosts a TV show made by a state-owned Chinese company. Unofficial Chinese police stations have sprouted across many countries in the West. The list could go on. It is not an issue that can be ducked any longer.
Yet due to the growing influence of China and our elite’s squeamishness about offending the now mighty dragon, little is done about such things. Whereas nuclear war is looked upon with a certain degree of excitement by swathes of the commentariat over a border dispute in Eastern Europe, the spreading tentacles of a communist dictatorship evoke few such passionate responses.
The Henry Jackson Society report’s recommendation that CIs be shut down is a sound one and would be an important signal. It is vital, however, that more is done to promote the learning of Mandarin in the United Kingdom. While the growing shift in balance between East and West in economic and military terms is frequently noted, a different disparity is widely ignored.
Most well-educated Chinese have at least a grasp of English. Hundreds of thousands of fluent speakers are created in those who go university in Anglophone countries every year. They are able to consume Western media.
Conversely, scarcely a handful of Westerners speak Mandarin or Cantonese, which puts us at a great disadvantage in the information war waged between East and West. It would be a sound move for our government to do more to promote Chinese teaching in this country, but not to outsource it to the Chinese Communist Party.