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Sonia Zhao came to Canada as a goodwill ambassador from China, part of what's known as the Confucius Institute Initiative, but later applied for refugee status and is now critical of what she calls the repressive regime she fled.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

With its economic and political might firmly established, once-insular China has spent the better part of the past decade putting on a charm offensive, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to shape the way the country is perceived around the world.

This ambitious effort to gain friends and influence – building its so-called soft power – has targeted students first and foremost, in partnerships with universities and colleges to open language and culture schools called Confucius Institutes. Since 2004, more than 300 Beijing-financed institutes have popped up all over the world, including a dozen in Canada.

Cash-strapped colleges and universities mostly greeted the institutes with open arms, keen to forge links with an ascendant economic superpower. But those same schools are now confronting uncomfortable questions about the extent of the Chinese state's reach into Canadian academia.

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Two years ago, Sonia Zhao was among the scores of teachers China dispatched abroad in the service of soft power. She didn't last long. After a year teaching Mandarin at a Confucius Institute run in collaboration with McMaster University in Hamilton, she quit her job and claimed refugee status in Canada.

Ms. Zhao complains she was forced to hide her spiritual belief in Falun Gong – a movement the Chinese government calls an illegal "evil cult." The allegations are detailed in a formal complaint filed last month to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, in which Ms. Zhao argues that McMaster "is giving legitimization to discrimination."

Included in her submission to the tribunal, obtained by The Globe and Mail, is a signed copy of her teaching contract stating that Confucius Institute teachers "are not allowed to join illegal organizations such as Falun Gong." Ms. Zhao told The Globe her mother was locked up for more than two years in China for her own Falun Gong beliefs.

"If my students asked me about Tibet or about other sensitive topics, I should have the right to talk about them, to express my opinion – but [I wasn't] allowed to say that freely," Ms. Zhao said in an interview. "During the training in Beijing, they do tell us: Don't talk about this. If the student insists, you just try to change the topic, or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer."

Andrea Farquhar, McMaster's assistant vice-president of public and government affairs, says the university is "looking for clarity" from its Chinese partners on aspects of their agreement, notably hiring practices, and is "raising the concerns that we had, and that had been brought forward to us, and looking to find some solutions to that."

The issues go far beyond one person and one complaint. Given the climate of post-secondary austerity and China's ascendancy, many schools feel they can ill afford to look this gift horse in the mouth. Yet ceding control of curricula to centrally controlled Chinese state agencies puts these schools at risk of compromising cherished principles of academic freedom.

The Confucius Institutes' stated goals, on first glance, seem innocuous enough: to be "a bridge reinforcing friendship and co-operation between China and the rest of the world," and to "increase mutual understanding among people in China and in Canada."

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Xu Lin, the head of the Confucius Institute headquarters of China, commonly known as Hanban, recently told reporters at a conference: "The West wants to study Mandarin, but they may not have the teaching expertise or human resources to satisfy their needs," according to the China Daily newspaper. "Therefore, we ought to help."

While the institutes' courses are mostly apolitical, much politics surrounds them. They are administered centrally by Hanban, a Chinese government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Education. The United Front Work Department, an arm of the Communist Party tasked with promoting soft power, also has a hand in the cultural outreach effort.

Some of those efforts include an English-language website – Confucius Institute Online – maintained as a teaching tool by the organization's headquarters for "kids and teens." It drew attention earlier this week for its "Chinese history" section, which credited the Communist Party of China for the country's advances but omitted its darker periods. A video titled "The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea" – taken down after it began circulating on Twitter – claims "the U.S. manipulated the UN Security Council … to enlarge the aggression against Korea;" it also trumpets the role of "volunteers" from China's People's Liberation Army who joined the fight.

While other big countries have similar cultural centres – Germany's Goethe Institute or France's Alliance Française – Confucius Institutes differ in that they are usually housed within established universities and colleges. The schools typically provide the classrooms and administrative support, while Hanban supplies teachers and teaching materials – plus start-up and yearly operating costs that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars – often through a partnering Chinese university.

That makes many academics uncomfortable, with concerns being raised in recent years by professors from the London School of Economics to the University of B.C. "It amounts to a foreign government setting up their teaching program on our campus using the prestige of the university to give legitimacy to what they are teaching," says Terry Russell, a University of Manitoba professor who successfully spearheaded resistance to a proposed Confucius Institute at his university in 2010.

McMaster received $100,000 (U.S.) in start-up money from Hanban, according to its 2008 implementation agreement, obtained by The Globe. The agreement says its Confucius Institute will "contribute to Chinese cultural awareness and activities which educate the Canadian public in relation to China." But it lays full authority for hiring and curriculum with the Chinese partners. "Whenever you sign an agreement like this, you do it with an optimism and a belief that this is something very beneficial … and I think it has brought that," McMaster's Ms. Farquhar says.

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Having lent its name to the Confucius Institute on its campus, McMaster says it is insisting that Canadian laws and expectations be respected. Partners in China have shown a willingness to consider adjusting the "screening process," Ms. Farquhar said, and the future of the institute may hinge on exactly how it proposes to do so. "The other part of the dialogue we were having was that if we can't get a resolution to this, that being able to continue on with the kind of agreement that we have at the moment would be difficult."

As for Ms. Zhao, who beat out thousands of other applicants at a university in Beijing for the cherished overseas spot at a Confucius Institute, she says the contract she signed is incompatible with Canadian values. Now teaching Mandarin at an independent private school in Toronto, she wonders why Confucius Institutes are even necessary.

"Teaching Chinese language, culture, is very interesting – not just for the foreigners but for me," she said. "I'm really glad I can stay here, just to lead a simple life, as a normal person."

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