The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has accused a group of Chinese cultural schools across the world of being controlled by the Chinese government, stifling debate on academic issues, and discriminating against those they view as dissenters. The CAUT recently voted almost unanimously to recommend that post-secondary institutions across the country cut all ties with the cultural centres, known as Confucius Institutes.

The CAUT has raised a number of concerns about Confucius Institutes. TOM MAGLIARY/FLICKR

The CAUT has raised a number of concerns about Confucius Institutes. MAG3737/FLICKR

The institutes are run by Hanban, an arm of the Chinese government. The CAUT alleges that they are a way for China to wield soft power and increase its influence around the globe.  U of T does not have a Confucius Institute, however, the topic has come up over the years, according to Althea Blackburn-Evans, a university spokesperson.

“U of T offers scholarship, research, and language studies on China on all three campuses and we have therefore not seen the need for a stand-alone Confucius Institute,” she said. Other post-secondary institutions across the country have welcomed the Chinese cultural centres. Some locations include the University of Regina, the University of Saskatchewan, Carleton University, Seneca College, the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and the University of Waterloo.

Despite the criticism, schools that currently host Confucius Institutes say that they are places where students and community members can learn Chinese languages and culture. “The institute furthers Seneca’s commitment to our community and our partners,” stated Kayla Lewis, spokesperson for Seneca College. She added that: “Seneca does not participate in the hiring process of Chinese teachers for the Confucius Institute. The institute’s staff from China are employees of Seneca’s partner institution, Northeast Normal University.”

Leonard Findlay, chair of the CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, said that other cultural institutes that are in operation ­— such as France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut — are not directly attached to post-secondary institutions, unlike Confucius institutes, and thus are free to teach whatever curriculum they like. “Any entity on campus who are charged with and involved with education has to recognize the traditions of intellectual independence and academic freedom,” said Findlay. He went on to explain that topics such as Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square may be taboo at a Confucius Institute.

While the CAUT says that Confucius Institutes are restricting debate, this may not always be the case. Findlay says that the larger the institution, the more bargaining power they have to set the agenda. Smaller institutions that may be desperate for languages funding may have to sign non-transparent deals in order to engage the partnership. “We don’t know what the institution has given up,” said Findlay, adding that it is a bigger problem in the United States than in Canada.

In the case of Carleton University, whose Confucius Institute opened two years ago, the university senate makes all decisions regarding the curriculum. “We use the Confucius Institute to expand credit course offerings in the Chinese language,” said John Osborne, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at Carleton University. “Our senate maintains fierce control [of the curriculum],” he said.