Call for crackdown on China’s Confucius Institute as Scotland prepares to welcome wave of Hong Kong citizens

Scotland should crack down on pro-Chinese organisations such as the Confucius Institute to allow new immigrants from Hong Kong their freedom, a campaigner for human rights in the former British territory has warned.

Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom for Hong Kong – and author of the book Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere – said Scotland could be a key destination for the expected influx of Hong Kong residents through the new visa scheme, which will allow three quarters of the former colony the right to emigrate to the UK.

But he warned the Scottish Government needed to be aware the scheme could be infiltrated by pro-Chinese government individuals.

He, along with colleague Mark Sabah, is set to meet MSPs to call for caution around Chinese investment in Scotland this week.

Mark Clifford is president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong.

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The Confucius Institute has been compared to the British Council, or Germany’s Goethe Institute as a cultural office abroad. However, critics have warned it is a propaganda arm for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A former senior CCP official, Li Changchun, once commented that Confucius Institutes were "an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up".

"We're trying to make people aware of the importance of Scottish Hong Kong ties, in the fact that Scotland really punches above its weight in terms of Hong Kong, historically,” Mr Clifford said. “But I also think particularly now as a destination for for Hong Kongers, whether they come here for political reasons or not.

"I think Scotland actually has an outsized role to play, the historic ties are very strong. Three of our governors were from Scotland, including one who’s still alive, David Wilson. Scottish people built Hong Kong and I think now Scotland is a very important future welcoming point for Hong Kong people.”

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He added: “We want to encourage those ties, but also encourage a real watchfulness in terms of ensuring that the norms of an open society aren't subverted, as they have been in so many places.”

The UK Government’s British National Overseas (BNO) visa will be granted to any Hong Konger who took BNO citizenship before the 1997 handover of the territory to China. It was expanded last week to those born after 1997, as long as they have at least one parent with BNO citizenship.

The Home Office said said it expects about 300,000 people from Hong Kong to apply within the first five years of the scheme.

Questions over the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong have been raised in recent years. In 2019, millions of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to protest a proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong authorities to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China.

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Meanwhile, in July 2020, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which allows it to take action against anyone it believes could be deemed a threat to “national security”.

CFHG UK director Mark Sabah described the Confucius Institute as a “big problem” at Scottish universities – particularly the University of Edinburgh, where national centre, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, is based. It was set up with backing from the Scottish Government, as well as China.

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He said: "The Confucius Institutes need to be looked at. I know that in some American universities, they've been shut. They've not just been seen as a thought organisation, but as an absolute infiltration tool by the by the CCP.

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"Scotland has the most Confucius institutes in the UK. What we can talk about to MSPs is encouraging the idea that Hong Kong people coming on the BNO have to find a safe harbour in Scotland. This is a place where they can settle.

"They are usually highly educated, usually skilled and trained and if you wanted people to slip into the economy fairly well, most of them speak English to some extent. This is an asset.

"There could be reassurance given to people [by the Scottish Government] saying 'these are the norms of our society, you're welcome to be here to work and to live and to enjoy the freedom that you have that you've lost in Hong Kong. But this is what we won't tolerate'.

"And that we won't tolerate anyone who is infiltrating the BNO scheme. There are suspicions that it could be used by some pro-CCP people to come here and put a cat amongst the pigeons."

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A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “Edinburgh is a global university, renowned internationally for the quality of its research and teaching. We work with Chinese partners across student exchange, teaching, research cooperation, and industry engagement, providing incredible opportunities for our staff and students to experience working or studying in China and welcoming Chinese students and colleagues to Edinburgh.

“Edinburgh’s Confucius Institute and the University of Edinburgh continue to conduct open and critical debate about China alongside our efforts to promote cultural outreach, knowledge exchange and dialogue. There has been no loss of academic freedom nor inhibition of academic debate at the University of Edinburgh as a consequence of its relationship with the Confucius Institute."

The spokesperson added: “The director of the Confucius Institute at Edinburgh is appointed by the University of Edinburgh. The institute has contributed to significant discussion of matters relating to contemporary China.”

The Scottish Government was approached for a comment.

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