Chris Bolton, until recently the chair of the Toronto District School Board, showed a stunning lack of judgment in striking an agreement with the Chinese government to offer Chinese language and cultural programs, subsidized and controlled by the non-democratic government in Beijing. Despite its innocuous name, the Confucius Institute functions as little more than a long arm of the Chinese state, pushing its political agenda under the guise of simple language instruction.
Unlike other language and organizations such as the French Alliance Française or the German Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are tightly controlled by China's one-party state, even while operating directly on Canadian university campuses and school property. The language centres don't exactly spew Communist Party propaganda, but they hardly embrace a broad definition of Chinese culture. Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square are never discussed. Beijing virtually guarantees this by handpicking instructors for its overseas teaching assignments.
For China, the Confucius Institute appears to be part of a broader attempt to project its influence around the world. Over the past 10 years, Chinese foreign policy has undergone a major shift, with Beijing extending soft power, chequebook in hand. In the wake of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina or the recent tsunami, China's aid is welcomed. The Confucius Institute, which launched in 2004 and has more than 400 campuses worldwide, is a different story.
In the case of the TDSB, the institute paid just $100,000 in start-up funding for office space at two local high schools. In the grand scheme of the school board's budget, the tiny sum is a rounding error. Perhaps Mr. Bolton thought he was getting a deal – the opportunity to offer students Chinese language and cultural lessons at virtually zero cost. In fact, the agreement benefits a foreign government, and undermines the independence of our education system.
Mr. Bolton's abrupt resignation last month means he is no longer around to answer for any of this. The TDSB should offer Chinese language instruction – but a Canadian public school board should do so on its own terms. We're a wealthy country; Canada's public schools do not need to be subsidized by foreign governments, particularly those of an undemocratic, one-party state. The Confucius Institute has no place in Canada's largest school board. Trustees should vote to cancel the agreement before courses begin to roll out this fall.