Canadian schools and universities that maintain ties with China’s Confucius Institute say they see no reason to reassess those partnerships, despite new questions over what role the Chinese-government-backed education organization has in some Vancouver-area schools.
Several institutions contacted by The Globe and Mail said their partnerships with the Confucius Institute provide valuable cultural and language training, and the institute has no role in core school programs.
“We continue to believe that in an increasingly global world, academic exchanges and conversations lead to better understanding between nations and people of differing views,” Victoria Dinh, spokeswoman for the University of Saskatchewan, said in an e-mail.
“We are committed to advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics, irrespective of governmental polices and practices," she added.
Other schools are letting contracts lapse or planning to wind down the program, which primarily delivers extracurricular Mandarin instruction and cultural programming that is backed and partly funded by the Chinese government.
The Globe reported last week on the Confucius Institute programs within the Coquitlam school board in suburban Vancouver. An examination of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests found the Confucius Institute has helped some schools in the district buy supplies and laptops for Mandarin classes that are part of the curriculum. It also found that assessments of the programs asked for feedback on attitudes toward the institute in the community.
The documents include e-mails, a board meeting agenda and the full text of agreements signed with Confucius headquarters.
They include details of payments for supplies and equipment for the district’s own Mandarin bilingual programs at Walton Elementary School, Scott Creek Middle School and five local high schools. In 2017, more than 3,500 children attended Confucius courses in Coquitlam.
Coquitlam School District spokesman Ken Hoff said the institute does not offer any programs within the public school system, but that Mandarin-language courses in schools are eligible for grants from the Confucius Institute for things such as computers and supplies.
Schools chose how to spend the money, and supplies were bought locally, Mr. Hoff said, adding that the Confucius Institute does not provide instructors for the district’s bilingual programs.
The district’s parent advisory council did not state any specific misgivings about the Confucius Institute, but said the financial arrangements should be clearly disclosed.
“Finances that flow into our district from sources other than the B.C. Ministry of Education can raise concerns for parents,” said the council’s president, Marvin Klassen. “For that reason, it is our position that such revenues need to be treated with the highest level of transparency.”
Mabel Tung, chair of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, said Coquitlam should terminate its contract with the Confucius Institute.
She said the program is Chinese state-owned education propaganda that forbids content Beijing considers politically sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and Falun Gong.
The Confucius Institute’s website says it has 541 institutes worldwide, including 12 in Canada. However, two of those have now shut down.
Over the past decade, critics have raised concerns about Confucius Institutes in Canada providing paid trips to China for school or university staff and questioned whether China is using the organization to gain a window into, or influence, Canadian affairs. McMaster University closed its Confucius Institute in 2013 over practices that appeared to prohibit teachers hired in China and sent abroad to teach from having certain beliefs.
The Toronto District School Board ended its Confucius Institute program in 2014, and New Brunswick last year said it would phase them out by 2022. The British Columbia Institute of Technology wound down its Confucius Institute program last year. Agreements at Saint Mary’s University and the University of Waterloo’s Renison University College are up for renewal this year, and decisions are pending, spokespeople for those schools said.
University of Regina spokesman Everett Dorma said the university has no plans to change its arrangement with the institute.
Ms. Dinh said the program at the University of Saskatchewan was signed for five years only in 2016.
The agreement “explicitly commits all parties to respecting academic freedom” and gives the university control over the hiring, curriculum and academic practices of the institute, Ms. Dinh said.
Similarly, Megan Normandeau, a spokeswoman for Edmonton Public Schools, which has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2007, said the institute does not pay for any teachers in the district’s Chinese bilingual program, and that the relationship is “rooted in providing cultural and language supports for our students.”
The Confucius Institute at Carleton University was established in April, 2012, and spokesman Steven Reid said in an e-mail that “at this time, there is no evidence that anything prejudicial has been or is being promoted by the institute. The institute’s activities and programs follow their stated purpose of sharing traditional Chinese cultures and languages.”
Revenue from the institute does not contribute to university core funding, he added.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers in 2014 called on its members to sever ties with the Confucius Institute.
Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, warned that legitimate concerns related to Confucius Institutes should not mask the need for Chinese-language education in Canada.
The rise of China as a superpower and the number of people who speak Chinese as their first language mean Canadian policy makers should consider how to enhance Chinese-language instruction, Prof. Houlden said.
He added that he would like to see more government investment in Chinese-language education – but with budgets squeezed and public opinion turning against China, he doesn’t think that is likely.
“Certain languages have strategic value … and those ought to be taught,” he said. “If you want to talk to the people, the dissidents, folks who know what’s happening – native-language speaking ability is a must.”
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat and senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said Confucius Institutes appear to function as branches of the Chinese Communist Party.
“So they clearly do have a mandate beyond simply the soft power of increasing global respect for Chinese culture and civilization,” he said.
Mr. Burton said he expects more universities will end their partnerships as contracts expire, but worries little or nothing will replace them.
“If we continue to go the way we have been going – we will be poorly prepared for the challenge that China – a non-democratic authoritarian regime with a very important market for Canadian goods and services – presents,” he said.
The Chinese consulate in Vancouver didn’t respond to The Globe’s request for comment.
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