top of page

UK: Sunak In, Confucius Institutes Out?

The new British Prime Minister has promised to disband the country’s Confucius Institutes, a tool of Beijing’s propaganda.

By Ruth Ingram

October 28, 2022

The booth of the Oxford Brookes University Confucius Institute at Fresher’s Fair. From Twitter.

The murky depths that Beijing will go to push pro-CCP propaganda and stifle dissent overseas have been plumbed in a new report on Confucius Institutes in the UK .

Far from being the once assumed “soft power” initiative to promote Chinese culture and language within the UK, their purpose as a direct and lavishly funded propaganda arm of the CCP has been uncovered in revelations by the Asia Studies Centre of the Henry Jackson Society.

Not only has Beijing ploughed a staggering £33,426,300 into the UK institutes, with another ten million or so unaccounted for, but has filled them with around 250 majority Han Chinese loyalist staff who have pledged allegiance to the regime, and are determined to peddle Beijing’s agenda into British life and business.

Governments have been slow to wake up to the pernicious influence of the more than 550 Confucius Institutes scattered around the world, despite myriad studies proving their “incompatibility” with democratic societies, particularly in the academic field.

Despite being described in 2014 as “academic malware” by the University of Chicago’s Professor Marshal Sahlins, who advocated their closure, and as “China’s Trojan Horse” by the Heritage Foundation, the UK’s honeymoon continued regardless, and by the time of Xi’s visit in 2015, 27 centers had opened throughout the country.

Not until 2019 were the 30 establishments, operating under the umbrella of prestigious universities, with tentacles permeating 100 schools, politics, academia and business interests, investigated by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and proven wanting.

Publicity for the Confucius Institute at the University of Hull. From Twitter.

Operating under the auspices of the recently M15-flagged up “United Front Work Departmentset up to specifically advance the CCP’s influence abroad, and to leach vital technological expertise from the UK, their task is to ensure a veil is drawn over PRC activities.

The report slammed as “intolerable” UK government actions in allowing an institution devoted to eradicating democracy, and dumbing down the oppression taking place within its own borders, to exist within its own corridors of academic enquiry.

The Government must wake up to CCP tactics to inveigle itself within the fabric of the UK, say the authors of the report, and not take at face value attempts to rebrand the Confucius Institutes as innocent educational establishments.

Far from being the guileless cultural promoters they claim to be, the report alerts decision makers and policy readers to their malign influence and recommends a thorough overhaul of Confucius Institutes practices regarding free speech, their staff recruitment, transparency over funding and its purposes, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

Long-standing over-reliance on Beijing for Chinese language acquisition must be stemmed and other avenues, particularly Taiwan, should be explored, say the authors.

More attention should be paid to pro-China political statements made by Institutes,

particularly those responding negatively to pro-democracy activism in the West. Citing the case of an instructor hired by the Confucius Institute at McMaster University in Canada, who was compelled to sign away her right to practice Falun Gong, and whose case later resulted in the closure of that institute at McMaster, the report advocated more protection for overseas Chinese citizens who dare to speak out.

Universities should beware the conflict of interests in inviting Confucius Institutes personnel to teach on contemporary China and the consequent threat to deeper understanding of Middle Kingdom politics, human rights, social problems, ethnic relations and territorial claims to areas such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. In that vein, naively embarking on collaborations that even benefit Beijing militarily must be terminated.

A “Model Confucius Institute” operates in the University of Manchester. From Twitter.

If the Institutes are allowed to continue, those in partnership with them must realize the opposing world views held by each of the countries, observe the authors.

“Regardless of how effectively they uphold these principles, British universities are committed to free enquiry, freedom of speech, equality and freedom from discrimination, honest teaching, and the pursuit of knowledge,” they say.

In contrast, “regardless of how often it claims to pursue the greater good, the CCP jails the enquiring, suppresses speech, destroys ethnic minorities and political dissidents, lies to its people, and spreads disinformation at home and abroad.”

Confucius Institutes should have never seen the light of day twenty years ago, was the damning verdict of the report. “But this was never a partnership of equals,” it concludes. “Instead, it is the kind of combination that poses a fundamental threat to one of Britain’s most important institutions.”

Legislation is underway in the U.K. to enable Confucius Institutes’ partnerships to be disentangled, in the form of an amendment to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, but its implementation would be arbitrary.

Instead, a more permanent solution might be on the table in the form of a vow made by the UK’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who promised in his leadership bid, to disband the country’s Confucius Institutes.

Having branded China the “number one threat” to domestic and global security, Sunak vowed to “kick the CCP out of our universities.”

“Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.” “I will change this on Day 1 as PM,” he promised.

The report’s authors might have an ally waiting in the wings. The days of Beijing’s influence through its Confucius Institute mouthpiece in the UK might yet be numbered.


bottom of page