Scottish Government distances itself from Confucius Institutes as Rishi Sunak proposes ban amid growing China threat

The Scottish Government has distanced itself from the Chinese state-backed Confucius Institutes, including the national Scottish centre that it part-funded at its launch, as Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak pledged to ban all 30 UK branches if he is elected.

Mr Sunak’s proposals include the closure of all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain, which he said would curb the spread of Chinese influence through culture and language programmes. He has warned China is the biggest threat facing the UK.

Scotland has the most Confucius Institutes in the UK, with the national centre, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, based at the University of Edinburgh. It was set up with backing from the Scottish Government, as well as Chinese authorities. Other branches of the institute are based in universities around Scotland, including the University of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Heriot Watt and Aberdeen, as well as schools.

However, the Scottish Government refused to answer questions on whether it would continue to support Confucius Institutes in Scotland amid growing concerns over Chinese influence – and instead warned universities should conduct “appropriate due diligence” before entering into international partnerships. It urged them to consider the potential “reputational, ethical and security risks” associated with such links.

Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 - 473 BC), circa 500 BC.

However, it also pointed out higher education is a devolved matter, suggesting any Confucius Institutes hosted in Scotland may not be subject to Mr Sunak’s ban.

The Confucius Institute has been compared by supporters 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).

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Questions have been raised over Scotland’s links to Confucius Institutes for some time.

It emerged last year that Scottish universities had accepted more than £13 million in funding over the past 15 years from the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Language Council, known as Hanban. Edinburgh has taken more than any other university in the UK at £6 million, followed by Strathclyde with £5.6m.

The national centre’s website states it was “set up with Sino-Scottish Government backing”.

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 – welcomed Mr Sunak’s proposals.

He said: "This is a welcome recognition of the threat that China, through organisations like the Confucius Institutes, poses to British freedom. Whoever becomes prime minister should take a hard look at Chinese influence, not only on campuses, but throughout British society, especially on politicians – and on decision making regarding inward investment from Chinese state players."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As autonomous bodies, universities are responsible for their international academic links and partnerships. All universities understand and manage the reputational, ethical and security risks potentially associated with international partnerships.

"This includes conducting appropriate due diligence before entering into such partnerships and monitoring existing partnerships for emerging problems.”

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: “Universities engage with open eyes and due diligence, ensuring that their practice is consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The internationalisation of higher education brings many benefits to our home students, to the curriculum and to research as well as revenue to universities and a contribution to Scotland’s economy and cultural life.”

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