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China Researcher Warns Confucius Institute Hiring Process Poses ‘Fundamental Systematic Risk’ to UK Universities

The recruitment process of Chinese staff for Confucius Institutes (CIs) in the UK poses a “fundamental systematic risk” to their hosting universities, a China researcher said.

Sam Dunning, investigative journalist and director of charity UK-China Transparency (UKCT), said British universities now “have to deal with” the CIs in light of recently published evidence and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act that was passed into law last month.

Speaking to NTD‘s “British Thought Leaders” programme about the works of UKCT, Dunning said one of the charity’s research found that Chinese universities were discriminating candidates when hiring teachers for their British partners, and that the teachers were recruited on the basis of their ability of “surveilling on, informing on, and possibly intimidating and threatening their peers.”

CIs are teaching centres hosted by Chinese and non-Chinese partners, with the stated aim of promoting the Chinese language and culture and exchanges among people.

It was previously operated by the Center for Language Education and Cooperation, also known as Han Ban, a Chinese government body.

In 2020, the governance of the CIs was transferred to the Chinese International Education Foundation, which has the status of a non-profit charitable organisation, although its president, vice presidents, and all council members are secretaries or members of Communist Party committees in their universities.

British universities are hosting 30 CIs, currently the highest number in the world.

While the British co-directors and administrative staff of the CIs are recruited by hosting British universities, the Chinese co-directors and teachers are hired from China by the Chinese partner entity, often a university.

Chinese job applications and descriptions show that the hiring process of Chinese teachers and co-directors is discriminatory in a way that’s “illegal under British law,” Dunning said.

Epoch Times Photo
China’s then-Vice President Xi Jinping (now Chinese leader) unveils a plaque at the opening of Australia’s first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

“You’re telling people that they have promised not to get pregnant if they’re going to get this job. You’re saying no one over 35 or 45,” he said of the hiring process.

“You’re asking people to guarantee they’re not a member of illegal organizations … that’s an incredibly broad, discriminatory, oppressive category that includes Christian groups, Muslim groups, Falun Gong groups, Buddhist groups, … people who just want to practice their religion, who are being oppressed by the [Chinese Communist Party (CCP)].

“If you want to work at a British university, recruited by that British university’s Chinese partner to go and work at the Confucius Institute. You have to say, I’m not a member of any of these groups. And that’s illegal under British law,” he said.

Another issue with the recruitment process, he added, is that “these staff who are coming to work at British universities are evaluated for their appropriateness for the job on the basis of their ability to enforce party discipline overseas.”

“What that means is that the Chinese government at least is saying, we want people to go from China into British universities who are good at surveilling on, informing on, and possibly intimidating and threatening their peers, because that’s what party discipline is in China.”

Therefore, by allowing these practices, British universities have been turning a “willful blind eye to the rights of staff and students” who have families in China who may be interested in politics and want to talk about issues such as human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Dunning said the purpose of his study is to alert universities, which may not have noticed the materials in Mandarin and which have been encouraged by the government to increase partnerships with China a decade ago.

Last month, Downing Street confirmed last month the government has dropped plans to close all CIs in the UK—a campaign pledge of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak—saying the move would be “disproportionate.” Instead, it’s “taking action to remove any government funding” from the institutes.

But Dunning said new powers for England’s higher education regulator is likely to force universities to deal with their CI problem.

“Theoretically, if a university was not upholding its responsibilities with regard to academic freedom and freedom of speech, the Office for Students is going to have the power to deregister that university, which means they can’t offer degrees, they essentially can’t be a university,” he said.

Dunning said with the ties between British universities and businesses with their Chinese partners in a wide range of sectors including telecommunications, surveillance, and arms manufacture, there is a need for more transparency around those ties as some potentially involve “sensitive research that has got through the UK export control regime.”

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