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Close the Confucius Institutes

Britain should not be enabling Chinese soft power

Artillery Row

Walk down the streets of Firenze in search of an osteria, and you might be surprised — not by the presence of a Greek Orthodox Church, but a Confucius Institute. In Bologna, interspersed between the vermilion roofs and Extinction Rebellion insignias (it is home to a university after all) is another Confucius Institute, affiliated to the age-old university. Nestled in the dreaming spires of Oxford lies yet another such establishment, part of Oxford Brookes University

In Chinese culture, the number four foreshadows calamity. Succeeding the forty-four-day government of Liz Truss, the government of Rishi Sunak has a mammoth agenda of tackling crises at home and abroad. It is time to treat China seriously, to emphasise how a healthy relationship involves both sides knowing the limits, to translate words into action but also to understand how China views the world. 

The grasp of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) extends far beyond its borders. Ranging from overt suppression of anti-CCP activity to more penetrative means, in no small part aided by technological innovation, the CCP’s recent activities include suppressing peaceful protestors outside of the Chinese Consulate-General in Manchester. None other than the Consul-General himself, Zheng Xiyuan, was involved. Meanwhile the lucrative luring of former RAF — and even French — combat pilots to train members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army reveals another ominous string to the CCP’s bow. These actions raise a vital concern: behaviour that may be acceptable in China cannot be assumed to be acceptable in the United Kingdom. 

Much like the British and French fighter pilots, it is all about money

China’s challenge to international relations is manifold. In 2010, the eminent international relations scholar, John Mearsheimer, outlined how China’s military and economic rise would portend a “gathering storm”. Twelve years later, the storm has indeed gathered. Wanting the best of both worlds, China has actively sought new means to undermine the liberal international order. The outcomes would even make David Cameron (who in 2015 famously declared the “golden era” of Sino-UK relations) shudder. Beijing wants to benefit from being part of the international community whilst simultaneously rejecting the norms and values with which it disagrees. Coercing its US-allied neighbours into reducing their political dependency on Washington, it has established parallel institutions to rival those of the West. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to which the United Kingdom acceded in 2015, is one of the funders of Beijing’s hitherto far-from-successful Belt and Road Initiative. 

China has realised that it is insufficient simply to challenge international order from the outside; it must also do so from within. Beijing’s stint on the United Nations Human Rights Council — from 2021 to 2023 — is reducing the body to a farce. On 22 October, the Council refused to debate China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, a move hailed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as a “victory for truth and justice”. Beijing also has an admittedly unreliable friend in Moscow, a partner since 2001 in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Pledging to strengthen ties in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Moscow and Beijing desire a weakened United Nations Security Council. Thus far, their hopes are being realised. 

Any student of politics will know of the definition of “soft power” posited by US political scientist Joseph Nye: obtaining what one wants through attraction not coercion. Though the Chinese invention of TikTok may attract today’s youth from London to Sydney, the Chinese political system has few appealing characteristics — not least the CCP’s bizarre pursuit of “zero covid”, with which growing albeit small segments of the Chinese population are becoming frustrated

For decades, the Confucius Institutes have formed one of the tentacles of Chinese “soft power” — tentacles which are extending their reach as Xi Jinping entrenches personalist power and shows few qualms about humiliating his predecessor in public. These “educational” establishments are not mere avenues for the CCP to attract foreign disciples, but a means of coercing foreign actors. Upon their inception in 2004, the Institutes were administered by Hanban — a group affiliated to the Chinese Ministry of Education — which, in 2020 renamed itself the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation. A new name did not change old ways. Information about Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan is either manipulated in favour of the party line or removed from the curricula. 

Shouldn’t UK universities know better than to affiliate with such establishments? Much like the British and French fighter pilots, it is all about money. Between 2006 and 2021, seventeen UK universities received over £24 million in funding for their Confucius Institutes. At University College, Dublin the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies — a collaboration between the University and Confucius Institute programme — has delivered courses on Chinese history and politics. Recent evidence of links between Cambridge University and CCP-affiliated funding have compelled the University to declare that they “will not engage in any research with Huawei in relation to 5G … nor … accept their technology platforms”. In an era when universities obsess over “decolonising” curricula, the very real problems here and now cannot be confined to the rear-view mirror. 

As Xi Jinping asserted at the opening of the quinquennial 20th CCP Congress, on 16 October, China wishes to promote a “new type of international relations”. 5000 miles away in Whitehall, what can be done as the UK government aims to recover from its state of anarchy? As the foreign policies of the Sunak Conservative government gain clarity, everyone knows that rhetoric is no ersatz for policy. Just as Xi Jinping mentioned the word “security” at least 90 times in his opening address at the Congress, the words “China” and “threat” have been all-too frequently expounded from the mouths of potential Prime Ministers. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s declaration of his “fervently Sinophile” nature carried little substantive meaning. Rishi Sunak has demonstrated he can talk the talk. Now, as Prime Minister, will he walk the walk on his pledges to create a global NATO-style alliance to tackle Chinese cyber threats, or cease the operation of the Confucius Institutes? Use a word too frequently, and its meaning becomes diluted, especially if a policy such as the UK government’s “China policy is mired in ambiguity. Seemingly part of the wider Indo-Pacific policy, this policy has posited few concrete steps to tackle the multiple challenges from China. 

Why should the United Kingdom kowtow to China’s commands?

Managing the UK’s relationship with China will become increasingly arduous. There is no silver bullet for striking a balance between reaping economic benefits without compromising on our core values of human rights, freedom and security, especially as China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy shows few signs of abating. As UK Minister for Business, Energy, and Clean Growth Greg Hands travels to Taipei, the very idea of such a visit has incensed the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Hands is no Nancy Pelosi, but the visit seeks to boost trade partnerships with London, as a manifestation of the UK’s so-called Indo-Pacific “tilt”. Acerbic Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged the UK to halt “official exchanges with Taiwan” and “stop sending wrong signals to Taiwan separatist forces”. A vital norm of international relations, diplomacy can — and should — take place between countries with convergent and divergent worldviews. What is more, why should the United Kingdom kowtow to China’s commands, and refuse to engage with the world’s 21st largest economy? Taiwan has a Representative Office in London — and the UK government has a similar office in Taipei — which, whilst not a de jure embassy, represents cultural, political and (crucially) economic relations between the two polities. 

The first step for the Sunak government should be to close the Confucius Institutes operating in the United Kingdom. Universities may lament the loss of financial revenue, but the closure of these propaganda-generating machines is one small step towards defending freedom of speech within educational institutions, a value which is already under threat. This manoeuvre, to which Home Office Minister Tom Tugendhat recently committed, would make clear to China that any relationship has its limits. Sino-UK ties are no exception.

A second solution pertains to accountability. In the longer-term, greater regulation of the exchange of intelligence between British and Chinese counterparts is required. For all the Ministry of Defence’s emphasis on taking “decisive steps” to prevent British forces being poached by the Middle Kingdom, China will remain undeterred in getting what it wants. Holding China to account also means going further than summoning the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires in the wake of the so-called Manchester incident to express dissatisfaction. In this grave instance, the UK government should consider the next step — namely, expelling Consul-General Zheng. 

The final solution is more revolutionary, albeit not in the way Mao used the word. An oft-touted stereotype of the British population is that we are not a nation of language-learners. With increasingly stringent constraints in accessing China for academic research or otherwise, the incentives to learn Mandarin perhaps decline. Yet, amidst clarion calls for a “Global Britain” that can tackle the myriad of challenges from China, the need for schools, universities and workplaces to teach Mandarin — in addition to Classical and Romance languages — has never been greater. Whilst it may not always secure a complimentary bag of prawn crackers at one’s local Chinese takeaway, learning Mandarin is a necessity if any analysis or action taken in response to China’s behaviour is to delve deeper than mere omphaloskepsis. If diplomats, policymakers, and academics are committed to devising optimal solutions to resisting China’s overt and covert subversion of the liberal international order, they need to understand China’s worldview. Whilst doing so will require reading between the lines of what the CCP says, one must first understand what it says. 

At the end of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, whenever that may be, will he embody the acronym of NATO — “no action, talk only” — in his approach to China? When asked about his actions in Manchester, Consul-General Zheng retorted how it was his “duty” to pull the hair of one of the protestors, since they were brandishing a “deeply offensive” sign. 

It is our duty to preserve democracy, for we are not China. 

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