“He who learns but does not think, is lost!”
LAST month, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission became the latest body to launch an investigation into the role and influence of the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, the official purpose of which is to teach Mandarin and promote Chinese culture.
The exercise began with the screening of a Canadian documentary, In the Name of Confucius, which examines the spread of CIs – there are now more than 500 in 142 countries across the world – but also, the way the tide is turning against them.
At first the institutes were touted as benign – the Chinese equivalent of the British Council or the Alliance Française – and an easy way of importing Chinese expertise into academic institutions. But as their numbers have risen, doubts have started to creep in.
With China’s communist government having invested £1.85bn in the initiative between 2006-15 and a high-ranking member of the Politburo admitting CIs are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”, suspicions have grown that they are being used to exert undue influence and downplay human rights abuses.
Critics claim its teachers, who are employees of Hanban, a public institution affiliated to the Ministry of Education, are forbidden to talk about “the three Ts”: Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan. The University of Chicago and the Toronto District School Board are amongst the educational institutes that have already severed ties.
Against this backdrop, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement during her recent trip to China of a £754,000 investment in the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS) – money that will be used to help students travel to the country – was bound to prove controversial.
Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer branded the decision “wildly irresponsible”, adding: “I can think of few other countries which are studied on terms set by the government of that country and certainly not governments with such a long and violent history of crushing dissent.”
Yet for its part, the Scottish Government, which insists all teaching in Scottish schools meets Scottish standards, seems oblivious to the international backlash.
Scotland’s relationship with CIs began under Labour, but the SNP has embraced the concept as a way to give Scots children access to the world’s second largest economy.
Their lure has been heightened by the way they feed into the Scottish Government’s 1+2 policy which requires every child to learn a second language by P1 and a third by P5. A great idea in principle, 1+2 has been undermined by a lack of resources. And what better way to compensate than to have Mandarin delivered on the cheap by native speakers?
As a result, we now have five university-based Confucius Institutes – at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Aberdeen and Strathclyde University. The one at Strathclyde provides teachers to Confucius hubs in 22 secondary schools and 21 primary schools. There are also four specialist Confucius hubs at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo, Scottish Opera and Hampden Park.
Judith McClure, the chair of the Scottish Chinese Education Network, set up to promote the learning of Chinese in schools, is a passionate advocate of the Confucius revolution.
The former headteacher of St George’s School in Edinburgh is adamant the institutes are a national asset and that the UK teachers and visiting Chinese academics involved in it “believe in freedom of speech”.
But other educationalists are more ambivalent. Some, such as Dan Tierney, formerly of Strathclyde University, have questioned the decision to focus so strongly on a language that is more difficult and less relevant than many European languages.
Though McClure insists many pupils are benefiting from the Confucius classrooms, the numbers taking Mandarin at National 5 or Higher level are not rising as quickly as hoped.
Politically, too, there are good reasons to be wary. Politicians, who know little about China, rely on academics to inform policy. If employees of the Chinese state have sole responsibility for training those academics then they are in a position to influence the way the country is viewed.
This potential for influence is said to be particularly great in Scotland because – unlike the US – we have no indigenous expertise against which the value of the CIs can be measured.
Another area of concern is the impact of the CIs on the thousands of Chinese people who come over to the UK to study; encountering hard truths about their own country for the first time, some of those students will go on to become politically active and attend meetings that might be frowned upon by staff who have been vetted by China’s security services.
Indeed, in the US, fears that the CIs are a cover for spying and the exertion of undue influence are so pronounced, the FBI has launched its own investigation.
Most of this is not new. Questions have been raised in newspapers across the world for several years and yet, at no point has the Scottish Government given serious consideration to the possibility any of this could be an issue here.
With concerns mounting, its insouciant attitude to the CIs appears naive. While the impulse to widen pupils’ horizons is a positive one, it must be careful not to put itself in the position where it is being used to further the Chinese state’s agenda.