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As Canadian public schools look to Asia for extra cash, one Chinese authority is publicly seeking to open its own school in British Columbia, sparking concerns over Beijing's intentions in expanding its presence – and political agenda – overseas

Yu Haoran, the founder of a technical training school in northeastern China’s Jilin province, has already begun laying plans to educate his oldest son, Yu Xiao, elsewhere.

In 1999, Patricia Gartland took a job doing something the Coquitlam school district had never done before: As the founding district principal for international education, she was given the task of opening local elementary, middle and high schools to foreign students.

By the standards of British Columbia's Lower Mainland, Coquitlam was late. Neighbouring school districts such as Vancouver had already spent a decade wooing overseas enrolments. Under Ms. Gartland's leadership, however, the suburban city has more than made up for lost time. Last year, tuition revenue from out-of-province students exceeded 10 per cent of the district's total budget, far eclipsing neighbouring districts.

Much of that money comes from a single country: China. And as it has pursued tuition dollars, Coquitlam has intertwined itself with Beijing and Chinese organizations dedicated to spreading soft power through education.

Indeed, one Chinese education authority has publicly discussed plans to build its own school in Coquitlam, a step that critics say would amount to giving China's Communist Party an ideological foothold in B.C.'s education system well beyond the Confucius Institutes that already operate in the country. Funded and partly run by the Chinese government, Confucius programs offer instruction in Chinese language and culture, and injections of cash and other resources to their hosts.

What is now being contemplated is "really a Chinese school spreading Chinese values through the Chinese diaspora in Canada. And a lot of those values run counter to Canadian values," said Jiang Xueqin, a Harvard University researcher who also consults for Chinese schools.

Coquitlam, which denies knowledge of the planned school, has pursued deeper ties with Beijing just as the world's second-largest economy is seeking a more active role in global affairs. China is using its rising economic clout to build ties around the world. Canada, for example, has been considering the formal launch of free-trade talks with China and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the country earlier this month. But Beijing has also used financial pressure to further its political agenda and, under President Xi Jinping, has grown more assertive in silencing critics inside and outside its borders.

High school students attend the opening ceremony of a new term at their school in Beijing, in September, 2016.

Education has become a front in that effort. In Australia, where the value of education services provided to China is expected to triple to about $12-billion Australian ($11.8-billion Canadian) by 2025, professors have been forced to apologize to Chinese students over perceived slights that included showing a video that referred to Taiwan as a country (Beijing considers the self-governing jurisdiction a renegade province). A Chinese student in the United States was met with fury by people in her home country for a valedictory address in which she praised freedom of speech. Authorities are now demanding that foreign universities in China give Communist Party officials a seat on their boards of trustees, the Financial Times recently reported.

In Canada, meanwhile, Chinese authorities want to place their own beachhead on Canadian soil, a plan disclosed by education authorities in Haidian, a district of Beijing, in an online article vaunting its relationship with Coquitlam.

" Haidian District will build a school in Coquitlam. Both Chinese and local Canadian students will be recruited," the article states.

The Globe and Mail confirmed the plan with two other sources in China, including a Haidian district official who said it received verbal agreement from Coquitlam and has been the subject of written communication between Haidian and Coquitlam since last October – although it remains at a conceptual stage.

"This agreement does exist," the official said.

The idea of a Chinese-built school on Canadian soil is a controversial one, and Ms. Gartland, who is now superintendent in Coquitlam, denied knowledge of any agreement, verbal or otherwise.

"This is not the case," she said in an e-mail.

Every school built in British Columbia must deliver the province's curriculum. But schools "can add to the curriculum program and offer extension or enrichment based on the school's pedagogical or faith perspective," the provincial Ministry of Education said in a statement.

Building a Haidian school in Coquitlam would align with Chinese political priorities under Mr. Xi, who has sought to bolster the country's influence overseas, Mr. Jiang said. A Haidian official also described the Coquitlam plan to him.

But "from the perspective of Canada, there are a lot of concerns," he said.

"Their idea of the school is you can offer Canadian citizenship and still maintain your Chinese identity. And I think a lot of Canadians would reasonably feel very uncomfortable about that."

A Canadian kiosk is set up at the 2017 China Education Expo in Beijing, in October. The Expo is a multicity overseas fair that this year attracted 600 foreign schools and tens of thousands of Chinese parents and students.

Mr. Jiang, who is Canadian, calls it "a very bad idea for the idea of Canada as a nation," but one of interest to Chinese authorities who would like a model that can be replicated elsewhere.

In financial terms, China has already become one of the most important forces in a booming global education market: International students, led by those from China, were worth $36.9-billion (U.S.) to U.S. colleges and universities last year, the Association of International Educators has calculated. In Canada, international education is worth $11.6-billion (Canadian), the federal government says.

Much of that flows to postsecondary institutions such as the University of Toronto, where more than 10,000 Chinese students now make up 11.5 per cent of the student body.

But the composition of China's study-abroad cohort is changing. The number of university students has begun to shrink, while Chinese public-school-age students enrolled overseas rose 25 per cent in 2016, according to data compiled by global consultancy Deloitte.

Education has been one of the fastest-growing components of the trading relationship with Canada, and has received substantial government support.

Canada is now home to 186,000 Chinese students, according to the Chinese embassy.

A 2012 estimate found they spent nearly $2.7-billion a year in Canada on tuition and living expenses, and the numbers have risen since then.

"We'll do whatever we can" to increase their ranks, Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in a recent interview.

The expanding business of education has provided opportunity on both sides of the Pacific. At least 82 schools in China use a Canadian curriculum, a number that is set to increase after Toronto-based Blyth Academy agreed to build schools at science parks run by TUS Education Group, which is affiliated with Tsinghua University, one of China's best-known schools. Blyth expects to open its first school in Beijing within a year; it could eventually have 31.

The schools will educate Chinese students, which means they will deliver Western courses alongside the country's patriotic curriculum – translated into English.

Sam Blyth has agreed to build as many as 31 schools in China, which will combine the country’s patriotic curriculum with western course materials.

Company founder Sam Blyth said the standards will "be very, very high," but acknowledged the problems that can arise.

"We need to be sensitive to their cultural, political issues," he said.

At the same time, those very political issues are propelling some parents to send their children out of China to study.

Yu Haoran, the founder of a technical training school in the Chinese province of Jilin, has already begun laying plans to educate his oldest son, Yu Xiao, elsewhere. Xiao is now only in fifth grade, but Mr. Yu has decided that once he turns 16, he will go abroad, perhaps to the United States or Canada.

Mr. Yu has no personal interest in immigration, nor in leaving China. He just wants his son to escape its education system. Chinese schools do well in teaching math, but "our kids are treated like Foxconn products," he said, referring to the manufacturing behemoth whose assembly lines make iPhones and other electronics.

"They are filled with similar mindsets, assigned the same school work and seldom able to do extracurricular activities."

Something else bothers him, too, about education in China.

"Even though we love our country, you still have to admit that most educational institutes in China prioritize government ideology in their education," he said. "The party, rather than students, is the very thing they feel obliged to serve. I don't want my sons spending 10 or even more years in this system, just in the interest of the party."

It's time, he said "to set our kids free."

If he settles on Canada as a destination, Mr. Yu will find he and his son welcomed by public schools across the country, amid a nationwide recruitment drive that has emerged with little popular debate.

Take the recently concluded China Education Expo, a multicity overseas studies fair in China that this year attracted 600 foreign schools and tens of thousands of Chinese parents and students. Even a few years ago, it was made up primarily of universities. This year, postsecondary schools had to compete for space with public-school districts from Newfoundland to the B.C. Lower Mainland, part of a focus on Canadian education that brought 130 schools to China.

"Things are changing," said Bob Fitzpatrick, an education consultant with the Vancouver School Board.

"Every school district in Canada recognizes the importance of international education and the role that these foreign students can play in their district."

The Globe examined budget documents from a dozen school boards across Canada. In Toronto, "other fees and revenues" make up 4.2 per cent of the school-board budget. In Edmonton, out-of-province tuition is 0.6 per cent of annual school-board spending. Richmond, B.C. raises a bit under 7 per cent of its budget from offshore tuition fees. Calgary has enrolled international students as young as Grade 1. Roughly two-thirds of the 1,000-plus foreign students at Calgary public schools are Chinese.

Coquitlam, however, appears to be the leader in attracting overseas dollars: Tuition from international and out-of-province students brought in $34.2-million to the city last year, making up 11 per cent of the budget, double the percentage from 2012.

"This is the way of the future. We talk about 21st-century learning – there really has to be that global aspect to everything we do," Ms. Gartland said.

International students pay $15,000 a year to come to Coquitlam, far above the roughly $8,000 that the province gives districts to educate local students. The effective profit rate for Coquitlam works out to about 40 per cent, funds that buttress the district's operating budget.

"That money allows us to have a lot of stability in terms of our finances," Ms. Gartland said.

This year, the district has about 2,000 international students, more than half from China, Ms. Gartland said. (In a 2015 interview with local media, she put the figure at 70 per cent.)

Coquitlam, however, owes it success in attracting those students not solely to savvy recruitment. It has also actively sought relationships with authorities in China. Last year, the Coquitlam School District formalized a letter of intent on education co-operation with the Education Commission in Beijing's Haidian district, one of the top places for education in China.

The Coquitlam district's Chinese relationships have allowed it to play a role as a Canadian institution in shaping education in that country. The district, for example, has agreed to share instructional resources and training for physical-education teachers with Haidian, particularly in winter sports that have become a priority in China as it prepares to hold the 2022 Olympic Games. Coquitlam will also supply science, arts, sports and language-course materials to be used at an experimental school in Beijing. The Chinese district, in return, pays for Coquitlam educators to attend regular tours of China.

"Our teachers and principals say that it's one of the best professional-development opportunities they've ever had," Ms. Gartland said.

"Seeing is believing, and they get to have professional conversations with educators in China, about the challenges they face, the instructional strategies they use."

Building relationships with Chinese government authorities has another benefit, too. It validates Coquitlam as a destination, a place deemed safe by Chinese authorities for parents to send their children.

"They help in terms of knowing about your school district and what you have to offer – your reputation," Ms. Gartland said.

Coquitlam's efforts to curry relationships with China are far-reaching. Ms. Gartland is regularly photographed at events with the Chinese consul-general in Vancouver, and is a frequent visitor to China, touring school districts and schools. Coquitlam has also become home to one of the most active Confucius programs in the country. It boasts a Confucius Institute and Confucius Classrooms in eight of the district's schools.

The institutes are a controversial pillar in Beijing's bid to spread its influence abroad, and have drawn criticism for censoring topics China seeks to suppress, including the 1989 killing of students around Tiananmen Square and the country's treatment of groups such as Falun Gong.

In April, the U.S. National Association of Scholars published a lengthy report on Confucius programs, which it called instruments of Chinese soft power designed to "develop a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country." The report recommended closing all Confucius programs, warning that they can become a central avenue for exchange with China, making it difficult for schools "to withdraw from Confucius Institutes without jeopardizing other financial relationships."

A Canadian university kiosk is set up at the 2017 China Education Expo in Beijing, in October.

The Toronto District School Board ended its Confucius relationship in 2014. At the time, trustee Pamela Gough said: "If the Chinese government is attempting to infiltrate us, we have to resist with all our might."

Coquitlam, conversely, has been such an ardent supporter of Confucius that its program has been the subject of academic research in China, where a 2013 paper showed that 80 per cent of the students exposed to its instruction were ages 6 to 17 – younger than Confucius programs elsewhere.

" Coquitlam is definitely one of the most impressive examples of its kind in Canada," said Xu Pinxiang, the report's author, who is an associate professor at South China Normal University and, between 2012 and 2014, taught in Coquitlam.

"Confucius Institutes have done a great job in changing and removing the old stereotypes that Western society has long held about China. It helps spread the very essence of our culture and history," Prof. Xu said.

But Coquitlam's leadership has also actively defended China: Ms. Gartland has rejected questions about China's human-rights record as "xenophobia," and walked out on an interview for In The Name of Confucius, a documentary made by Full Stride Films, when asked about religious persecution in the country.

And 11 per cent of a school board's budget is too small a number to worry about dependency on foreign students, or China, said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Confucius Institutes, too, can be helpful, he said.

"Are they primarily facilitating language exchange? Education? That's good. Because that helps the school board teach these kids," he said.

Still, he said, "school boards should be aware of what's going on in Australia and the kind of pressure that China can impose."

Ms. Gartland, however, said such concerns need to be weighed against the good Chinese students bring.

"We're in charge of our school district and our programs. We have B.C. government-certified teachers teaching our classes," she said. As for the risk of creating vulnerability to Chinese political influence: "We're aware of that and we always try to balance all of those prerogatives," she said.

"But really, you don't want to turn away the benefits of the program because you're worried of some possible future thing happening."

- With reports from Alexandra Li