Chinese institutes at UK universities ‘screening out undesirable staff’

·5-min read
Students at a graduation ceremony - Chris Ison/PA
Students at a graduation ceremony - Chris Ison/PA

Staff at Confucius Institutes in the UK are having their political views and ethnic backgrounds filtered by Chinese officials, according to researchers.

The 30 Chinese institutes across the country were set up to deliver culture and language classes to international students.

However, MPs have warned the institutes are effectively a front for the Chinese Communist Party to clamp down on critical views of China and that they are having a “chilling effect” on academic freedom.

Research seen by The Telegraph has uncovered evidence that Chinese bodies supervising Confucius Institutes appear to be using discriminatory employment policies to vet staff working on UK campuses and are attempting to replicate China’s legal regime, which restricts free speech.

Job applications posted by Chinese universities, which have partnerships to run Confucius Institutes with their British counterparts, including Cardiff, Southampton and Huddersfield, ask applicants to describe their “political profile/characteristics” and “ethnicity”.

Sam Dunning, who is leading the research for the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank, and the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, a pro-democracy organisation, said the application forms are seemingly being used to find out whether candidates are a Communist Party member or have any potentially problematic affiliations.

“Our research suggests that political and ethnic discrimination is ubiquitous in the recruitment process for roles in Confucius Institutes at British universities,” he said.

The researchers found that of around 200 Chinese staff at Confucius Institutes in the UK, only two people are not Han, the majority ethnicity that dominates the Chinese Communist Party.

Have to comply with Chinese law in the UK

Chinese staff are recruited in China before they join Confucius Institutes in the UK. The institutes are governed by the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation, which is overseen by the Chinese ministry of education.

In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Newcastle University said staff at its Confucius Institute, which was set up with Xiamen University in China, are “guest members of staff” at the university and that the selection process takes place in China through Xiamen’s Centre for Language Education and Cooperation.

Chinese staff at the institute, when they arrive in the UK, have to comply with Chinese law as well as UK law, the university said, which would mean they cannot insult the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, without risking sanction, or say they think Tibet should be free.

The university said it “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our community and we are committed to ensuring a safe and inclusive environment for all”.

In response to an FOI request submitted by the Newcastle student union, the university said: “Any complaints of discrimination of any kind that are made by staff are investigated either under the dignity and respect policy or the disciplinary policy.”

Anson Kwong, a researcher from Hong Kong now based in London, said: “By replicating China’s legal regime which restricts speech, Confucius Institutes have in fact successfully imported a regime of censorship onto British campuses.

“And our universities are indeed participating in the Communist Party’s systematic oppression of ethnic minorities and political dissidents. All this undermines our scholarship by corrupting our knowledge of China, so that we only get the official version of Chinese culture, society and history.”

‘You can’t opt out of discrimination law’

Naomi Cunningham, an employment barrister at Outer Temple Chambers, said: “UK law applies to employment in the UK. It’s not possible to opt out just by writing in the contract ‘Chinese law applies’.

“You can’t opt out of discrimination law. I can’t see why this sort of vetting for political views wouldn’t be direct discrimination on the grounds of protected belief. Not being a Chinese Communist Party supporter, for example, is a protected belief – as is being a Chinese Communist Party supporter.”

Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Party leadership candidate, pledged during his campaign to ban the institutes, which he said are used to promote “Chinese soft power”.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: “Confucius Institutes are there to spy on Chinese students particularly. However, they are also there to bully the university hierarchy into ensuring that no critical debates on China take place at British universities.”

Sir Iain, who is backing Liz Truss in the leadership campaign, said he was confident that under her leadership, the UK would see “strong action with regards to this Chinese infiltration”.

In 2013, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, shut down its institute after a lecturer lodged a discrimination complaint that her religious beliefs were being suppressed.

Explaining the decision to shut the institute, Andrea Farquhar, McMaster's assistant vice-president for communications and public affairs, said: “It’s really around the hiring decisions – and those decisions were being made in China.”

The universities of Huddersfield, Southampton and Cardiff did not respond to requests for comment.

Newcastle University did not respond to a request for comment on its response to the FOI request.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy said: “We hope that the educational exchanges between China and the UK are seen in an objective and sensible manner, and the huge public interest in learning more about Chinese language and culture are respected and recognised.

“The harmful inclination to politicise anything that has to do with people-to-people exchanges between China and the UK should stop.

“Over the years, the Confucius Institutes in the UK have been committed to open and transparent operation, and strict adherence to local laws and university regulation.”