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China’s New Workshops Deserve Greater Scrutiny


Before reading this piece, you probably never heard of Luban Workshops. If so, don’t feel bad; you’re not alone. Very few have.

In a recent piece for the South China Morning Post, Conor Mycroft discussed a new string of CCP-funded workshops that have popped up (and continue to pop up) around the world. The intriguing piece starts by describing a vocational school in the Indonesian province of East Java, where classes on automotive engineering and vehicle maintenance are being taught.

Meanwhile, in the Portuguese city of Setúbal, students can be found learning the ins and outs of automation technology and industrial robotics.

In December 2022, a vocational school in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan opened, offering degrees in the field of urban thermal-energy planning.

What do these three places have in common?

They are all Chinese-backed initiatives “despite their subject variety and the vast distances between them,” noted Mycroft. “All of these schools exist under the same educational umbrella.” The “handle” of this umbrella can be traced to the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. The institutes are named after Lu Ban, a legendary Chinese architect and engineer.

Outside of China, these training centers have received very little coverage. Why is this the case? After all, since 2016, at least 25 Luban Workshops have opened in 23 different countries. Along with Indonesia and Portugal, other host countries include Egypt, where engineers are currently being trained, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, and even the United Kingdom.

The key responsibilities of these workshops involve “policy research, standards development, project guidance, quality assessment, teacher training, resource development, information release, academic exchange and publicity, promotion (in other words, propaganda), and applications,” according to Chinese state-run media China Daily.

In December 2021, according to the Luban Workshop website, Europe’s first workshop passed acceptance. The British Luban Workshop, as per the site, is “committed to building a high-end Chinese catering brand and an education and training system,” which will supposedly “help improve the standards of the overseas service sector.”

The British Luban Workshop has already established four levels of academic qualifications for Chinese Culinary Arts. Level 2 and above have, according to the website, already been approved by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). The city of Liverpool hosts a Luban-inspired culinary workshop with local chefs trained to cook various Chinese dishes. There is also a Luban Workshop at Crawley College, West Sussex. The college now offers a Sino-British Lu Ban Workshop Scholarship worth more than £2,000 (about $2,400).

Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view of Liverpool waterfront, Liverpool, Britain, on July 21, 2021. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

Nothing to fear, many readers will say. What’s wrong with students being exposed to Chinese cuisine and new culinary techniques?

With China—more specifically, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—nothing is ever benign. With these culinary creations, one would do well to remember that, with Beijing, there is no such thing as a free dinner.

In September last year, Eurasianet published a piece discussing the rise of Luban Workshops and why these centers should be viewed as “the second stage” of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road”). Created to institutionalize the CCP’s soft power presence, the BRI, an expansive (and expensive) infrastructure project that spans the globe, has 146 members. Once a country signs on to become a member of the initiative, the CCP immediately finds ways to meddle in the host country’s politics, culture, and educational institutions.

To sign a deal with Beijing is, in many ways, to give away the keys to the house. If in doubt, let me point you in the direction of Laos and Sri Lanka, two countries that have been left crippled, economically and politically, from agreeing to do business with Beijing.

One can’t discuss the BRI without discussing Confucius Institutes (CIs), an integral part of the much-maligned initiative. It’s no surprise that CIs—little more than glorified propaganda and espionage programs—are primarily found in countries that are members of the BRI (although the UK is not a BRI member, plenty of these institutes can be found in England, Scotland and Wales).

The same can be said for Luban Workshops, which should be viewed as just another version of CIs. More specifically, these workshops should be viewed as a new addition to Beijing’s soft power offensive. Soft power is considerably cheaper—and arguably far more effective—than, say, the hard power of military force.

The ability of the CCP to co-opt rather than coerce should not be underestimated. When one thinks of Chinese soft power, propaganda and censorship immediately spring to mind. And when one thinks of propaganda and censorship, one inevitably thinks of the online world, where social media profiles are closely monitored, and fake news stories are promoted. However, one needn’t be located in the virtual world to experience Chinese propaganda and censorship firsthand.

CIs aren’t just vehicles for espionage; they are also vehicles for disseminating false information and acts of intimidation. As the Human Rights Foundation warns, these institutes are little more than an extension of the CCP. They “have virtually free reign to heavily control teachers, courses, textbooks, and activities.” The CCP’s “heavy-handed influence” has allowed these institutes “to disseminate CCP rhetoric and silence dissenting viewpoints.”

This is why Belgium, Finland, and Sweden have kicked these institutes out of their respective countries. When it comes to CCP-endorsed initiatives, we must always strive to find out what is going on behind the scenes and the real motives. When the CCP says, “We’re here to help,” we must ask, “Help who, exactly?” The CCP establishes these institutes and workshops to spread a false image of China, exercise its authority over a region, and control a much broader narrative. To do this, the CCP suppresses voices of reason, investigations of merit, and political commentary that accurately portrays the brutality of the Chinese regime. This is what makes Luban Workshops so dangerous. It’s no coincidence that the CCP is aggressively rolling out these centers across Africa, a continent that it has effectively captured.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese laborer works at a construction site of Colombo Port City, a part of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Feb. 24, 2020. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images)

Dirk van der Kley, a research fellow with the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, told the aforementioned Mycroft that the workshops contribute directly to  China’s soft power campaign. They “could—in theory—be used as a sweetener to help Chinese firms win projects in other markets.”

Joseph Nye, the father of soft power, told me that when countries like China use soft power, they “can economize on carrots and sticks.” Also, he noted, they “add legitimacy to your hard power and create what I call smart power.” As Nye has explained before, effective geopolitical strategies utilize a mix of hard and soft power. The combination of hard and soft power is known as “smart power.”

To think that Beijing-backed workshops are being established in the UK solely for the purpose of teaching people about the joys of Chinese cuisine requires a complete suspension of disbelief. China is heavily invested in the UK, with a vice-like grip over universities and energy sectors. China now owns £143 billion (about $174 billion) in UK assets. One should view the workshops as a feature of a broader motive.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to ban Confucius Institutes. While he’s at it, he should also consider scrutinizing new workshops. Maybe, just maybe, they are benign creations; then again, considering they are backed by the CCP, perhaps they’re not. To scrutinize catering schools might seem ridiculous to many readers. Why, though? This is, after all, a CCP-backed endeavor we’re talking about. These centers are designed to change communist China’s international image, distort the truth, and rewrite factual narratives.

Remember, just a few months ago, the head of Britain’s cyber-intelligence agency warned whoever would listen that Beijing is using its economic clout to exert more control abroad. Jeremy Fleming argued, rather persuasively, that the CCP is battling “for control, for values, and for influence.” Soft power schemes allow it to achieve these goals.

According to the aforementioned Eurasianet piece, unlike Confucius Institutes, which have received a great deal of scrutiny for obvious reasons, Luban Workshops are “more practical” and “less cumbersome” to establish. Translation: they require less red tape and raise fewer alarms. As the piece noted, establishing something like a Confucius Institute “requires many levels of approval.” Luban Workshops, however, are much “easier to build.” These workshops are easier to build mainly because they are so new. The world hasn’t had enough time or enough exposure to the Luban initiative to fully comprehend the potential threats. The Chinese Communist Party is many things, but benevolent is not one of them.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Mac Ghlionn

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. He covers psychology and social relations, and has a keen interest in social dysfunction and media manipulation. His work has been published by the New York Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, Newsweek, National Review, and The Spectator US, among others.

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