Last week, the Toronto school board became the latest in a series of North American educational institutions to eject the Chinese government from its classrooms. The board voted decisively to terminate an agreement to open a Confucius Institute in Toronto. This would have provided instruction in matters Chinese to the city’s elementary school students—all courtesy of China’s Ministry of Education footing a $225,000 grant.
In Canada as in the United States, academic institutions are waking up to the reality that inviting the communist government of China in as a donor is like inviting a cuckoo into the nest. It seems at first that institutions receive free Mandarin instruction for their students and a window on Chinese culture. But soon enough, it turns out that certain topics—such as Tibet, Taiwan, or Falun Gong—are placed off-limits by the donors, and academic freedom goes out the window.
Confucius Institutes are the flagships of China’s public diplomacy campaign. Since they first opened in 2004, some 400 have sprouted in over 100 countries, according to the state news agency Xinhua, many of them on university campuses in the United States. These institutes are a matter of great pride in Beijing, but are raising concerns in recipient countries.
As the American Association of University Professors wrote this summer: “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom. Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”
As David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “We’re seeing really the end of the free ride that Confucius Institutes have had, particularly in North America,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think you’re going to see as many new Confucius Institutes in the wake of the high-profile crisis to date.”
That the academic world is finally waking up to China’s propaganda advances is tremendously good news.