Critics turn up the heat on Scotland’s schools partnership with China
Comments by Scottish Government education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville regarding a school partnership with the Chinese government have been branded "unbelievably naive and frankly dangerous".
Speaking to The Times newspaper, Somerville dismissed concerns that the 22 Beijing-funded Confucius hubs in Scottish schools risk national security and could give the Chinese government undue influence over Scottish education.
Host schools are paid £10,000 per year to host classes to promote Chinese language and culture, with participating secondaries including Stirling High School and St Ninian's in East Dunbartonshire. These are partly funded by the Scottish Government and Somerville has defended the scheme amidst concerns over Beijing's influence over education in Scotland. This includes fears over the surveillance of learners, which has been raised Iain Duncan Smith.
The former Tory leader is a long-term and vocal critic of ties between Chinese entities and public life in the UK – particularly on issues of technology and data security. He recently formed part of a group of MPs that successfully lobbied for the Houses of Parliament to delete its recently launched TiKTok account, claiming that “the prospect of Xi Jinping’s government having access to personal data on our children’s phones ought to be a cause for major concern”.
Prior to the government’s decision to exclude – and, gradually, expel – Huawei from the UK’s 5G network, Duncan Smith also spoke out regularly on what he saw as the risks posed by the Chinese tech firm.
Concerns about the schools partnership have also come from Somerville’s own party. The SNP’s Westminster defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald published a paper last year on “disinformation in public life”, in which he accused China's overseas education outreach programme of being a "key actor in the so-called information war" through "attempts to distort domestic political sentiment". He further called on the Scottish Government to commission an independent audit into the reach of "foreign state-backed bodies", naming Confucius Institutes as one of these.
Aamer Anwar and Anne Henderson, the former rectors of Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, have questioned the presence of Confucius Institutes on campuses and Rishi Sunak, one of the final two Conservative leadership candidates, has said he is prepared to force the closure of such units, potentially overruling Scots universities and ministers.
Anwar has said the five Confucius Institutes in Scottish universities "should be shut down" because they have "led to a lowering of academic standards, turning of a blind eye to the genocide of the Uighurs and self-censorship that in essence is brought about by institutes accused of being fronts for the Chinese regime and nothing more than Trojan horses".
Universities Scotland says institutions use due diligence and ensure partnerships are "consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy", while Somerville said Confuscius classrooms in schools provide a change for young people "to experience Mandarin and learn about Chinese culture". She added that the Scottish Government and individual universities have "commitments to academic free speech".
But Bowie – a founder member of the Chinese Research Group led by Tom Tugendhat and made up of Conservative MPs – called Somerville's position "unbelievably naive and frankly dangerous".
He told Holyrood: "For Shirley-Anne Somerville to say that they are simply a cultural programme is completely wrong. Everything the Chinese Communist Party does seeks to promote its propaganda. This is a government accused by some people of genocide and with a terrible record on human rights, animal rights and environmental rights. I and others, including Stewart McDonald, are very concerned with the influence that the Confucius Institutes have."
Bowie's Tory colleague, the MP for Rutland and Melton, who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the China Research Group, said Somerville's comments "could not be more incorrect, naive and concerning from the SNP". She said that Li Changchun, the former Chinese politician who was head of propaganda for Chinese Communist Party had previously said that they were an "important part of China’s overseas propaganda set up".