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True North Far East is dedicated to chronicling Canada-China relations and the surprising ways the two countries are influencing each other

Why Canada is shutting down its Confucius Institutes

Why Canada is shutting down its Confucius Institutes

As the backlash from the Canadian public and educators against China’s Confucius Institute grows, there continue to be many universities and parents who support Beijing’s cultural centres.


Just the Basics

  • After a surge in new openings between 2007 and 2012, Canadians are becoming increasingly wary of the China’s Confucius Institute

  • Fears about academic freedom, espionage and indoctrination are leading to a push back from educational institutions and provincial education departments

  • The response from parents, students and teachers has been mixed, with some arguing that fears about the Confucius Institute are overblown


We have all heard about protests against school closures, yet in recent years Canada has seen an increase in the number of demonstrations calling for the closure of certain schools. The schools in question - China’s Confucius Institutes - appear at first as unlikely targets for the ire of Canadian students and parents. The institutes (ostensibly) seek only to promote Chinese culture, language and art, yet opponents maintain that the organizations have a more sinister, ulterior mandate. Specifically, there is growing concern that Confucius Institutes in Canada and other countries constitute part of Beijing’s influence peddling network, or at worst outlets of propaganda and espionage. Former CSIS Asia-Pacific bureau chief, Michel-Juneau Katsuya has gone so far as to describe the Confucius Institutes as a “Trojan horse,” operating as satellite spy offices in Canada.

As of July 2019, there were 548 Confucius Institutes in 154 countries around the world, a global network that has some worried. The Chinese government and other proponents of the institutes maintain that they are no different from similar organizations run by other nations which promote language and culture, such as France’s L'Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut. Opponents of the Confucius Institutes argue that Western language and culture organizations such as those mentioned above operate independently of political interests, with clear mandates to keep an arm’s length from their respective governments. Conversely, the Confucius Institute is closely tied to China’s ministry of education, and has been criticized for acting in concert with Beijing’s political ambitions.

At the beginning of 2017, there were twelve Confucius Institutes and thirty-five Confucius Classrooms (a less resource intensive version a tier below an Institute - mainly aimed at students in primary and secondary education) in Canada. This represents 2.3 and 3.3 percent of global institutes and classrooms respectively, as Canada is not a foreign policy priority for China, which has instead focused on the United States: Confucius Institutes are located at over 100 American universities, and around 500 Classrooms are dotted around the U.S. 

Number of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in Canada and the United States

U.S data as of January 2019. Canadian data as of January, 2017 | Souces: GAO.gov, NAS.org, Ting Wu, Zhaoqing University

Even if one takes into consideration that Canada’s population is about one-tenth of the U.S there are still disproportionately fewer such institutions in Canada than in the United States, something which has been remarked on by American observers, such as  University of Chicago anthropology professor emeritus Marshall Sahlins, who notes that “Confucius Institutes appear to have met more serious resistance in Canada and elsewhere than in the United States. American Confucius Institute detractors point to high profile instances in Canada as evidence that the Chinese cultural organization poses a threat.

Confucius Institute has lost its lustre for many Canadian schools

In 2006, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) became the first Canadian organization to partner with the Confucius Institute, yet in the summer of 2019, BCIT quietly closed its Confucius Institute, citing negative press and declining demand. On the other hand, the Coquitlam School District continues to maintain ties with the Confucius Classroom program which it established back in 2009. Supplied with school materials and some teachers provided by China, Coquitlam’s Confucius Classroom was upgraded to an Institute in 2011, and in 2014 Superintendent Patricia Gartland travelled to China to accept the Confucius Institute of the Year award.

Since establishing ties with the Confucius Institute, revenue for the Coquitlam School District has increased markedly, peaking at $37 million compared to $14 million in 2012. The influx of around 2,000 international students, mainly from China has helped bridge the funding gap in the wake of provincial cutbacks, but reliance on Chinese money now constitutes a geo-political risk to the district’s finances should the supply of international students dry up. Administrators continue to enjoy all expense-paid annual trips to China: in 2018 chairman Barb Hobson and five other school trustees enjoyed a 10 day trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

BCIT and Coquitlam’s opposing attitudes to the Confucius Institute are typical of Canadian’s divided opinions. In February, 2019 New Brunswick education minister Dominic Cardy announced that he is terminating the province’s relationship with the Confucius Institute which had set up twenty-eight classrooms, teaching 5,450 students, across the province. Citing concerns about freedom of education, Cardy explained his decision by stating that “[The Confucius Institute’s] job is to create a friendly, cheerful face for a government that is responsible for more deaths than nearly any other in the history of our species [...] It’s something that has concerned me. Not because of any feelings of dislike towards anyone in China, in fact quite the opposite. My concern is [that] we have an institution whose job it is to put a very one-dimensional perspective of China into our schools.”

Similar concerns have been raised by activists in the United States, with Rachelle Peterson, policy director of the National Association of Scholars, a non-profit education advocacy group stating that “[Confucius Classrooms are] basically a classroom that has been outsourced to the Chinese government, giving China the power to edit out whatever it doesn’t want foreigners to hear about its history and its culture, and its authoritarian government.” 

Cardy has justified his decision by citing several complaints he received from students who were told by their Chinese teachers that they could not ask questions about certain topics, such as the recognition of Taiwan. Touching on New Brunswick’s decision to end its Confucius Classroom program, Wenran Jiang, adjunct professor of public policy and global affairs at UBC argues that the response is disproportionate. Jiang says that the five student complaints received by the New Brunswick government accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the 5,450 students enrolled in the program: what of the other 99.9 percent? Ought they be deprived of the benefits of the program? asks Jiang.

“[Confucius Institutes] appear to have met more serious resistance in Canada [...] than in the United States.”
— Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus University of Chicago

Former New Brunswick premier, Shawn Graham has also defended the program, arguing that the entire venture should not be scrapped because of a couple complaints. Graham, who now runs a consulting firm which helps New Brunswick business increase trade with China, has instead called for a review of the program. On the other hand, Jan Wong, the first Canadian student allowed to enrol in the prestigious Peking (Beida) University, told the CBC that the concerns of Canadians about the Confucius Institute are “totally justified,” citing the close links between the organization and the Chinese government.

Canadian skepticism of the Confucius Institute predates the current nadir in bilateral relations, as the University of Manitoba refused to allow a Confucius Institute on campus back in 2011, and in 2013 McMaster University and the Université de Sherbrooke ended their relationships with the program due to concerns about hiring practices and academic freedom. Sonia Zhao, a former Institute teacher and Falun Gong practitioner lodged a human rights complaint against the Confucius Institute at McMaster university, citing her employment contract which prohibited employees from engaging in ‘illegal activity’ including belonging to the Falun Gong movement.

Canadian employment law prohibits discrimination based on creed and Ontario authorities ruled against the organization, as dramatized in the documentary In the Name of Confucius, the 2017 film by Chinese-Canadian film-maker Doris Liu. Liu’s film was the culmination of a three year investigation into the practices and influence of the Confucius Institutes in North America, primarily in the Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario.

Liu decided to investigate the Confucius Institute for several reasons: “first, there is the human rights discrimination. Second, it’s academic  independence. Out fundamental values are at risk or damaged. The [Confucius] Institutes teach propaganda by sneaking it into our campuses.” In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called on all tertiary education institutions to sever ties with the Confucius Institute. A similar statement was issued in 2014 by the American Association of University Professors, who warned about alleged threats to academic freedom at institutions hosting Confucius Institutes. The year after Zhao’s lawsuit against the McMaster Confucius Institute, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) - the largest such organization in Canada - ended its ties with the Institute, following protests from the community. As a result the school board’s chairman was forced to resign and the TDSB was obliged to refund the Confucius Institute $200,000 in subsidies. 

There is some indication that the Chinese Ministry of Education has noticed this backlash, as it has altered contracts with Canadian institutions in recent years. The New Brunswick government has indicated that it will likely not be able to meet education minister Dominic Cardy’s timeline to remove Confucius Classrooms from the provincial school system by the end of 2019, as the province’s contract with the Institute runs to 2022. When the contract was first signed in 2007, parties could terminate the relationship with six months notice, yet this clause was removed at the request of the Chinese side when the contract was renewed in 2017.

Number of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms Globally (2013-2018)

Sources | STATISTA, HANBAN

Canada’s complicated relationships with the Confucius Institute

It is important to remember that the response from Canadian schools remains inconsistent, with some opting to continue cooperating with the Confucius Institute, despite growing suspicion among the general public and students alike. For instance, St. Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax renewed their contract in 2015 for an additional five years, with university spokesperson, Margaret Murphy saying that the university was aware of some problems at other universities in Canada, but had had no problems with the Institute hosted at SMU, noting that the university has been undertaking partnerships with Chinese scholarly organizations since the 1980s. Similarly, despite the withdrawal of McMaster and the Toronto Public School Board in 2014, both the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina announced that year that they would continue their partnerships.

Similarly, the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) has decided to continue working with the Confucius Institute that was established in the city in 2008. The EPSB renewed its contract for bilingual programs in fourteen districts back in October 2018, opting to continue to pay the annual $205,000 fee to host Institute services. The EPSB began its Mandarin program in 1983 and in 2007 decided to set up a Confucius Institute to further foster this program. 

The renewal decision has elicited contrasting reactions from parents, with parent and University of Alberta anthropology professor, Kathleen Lowrey telling the Edmonton Journal that “when someone comes on strong and lavishes you with gifts, it make it really hard to feel like you can say ‘no’ down the road. Watch out for relationships like that.” Lowrey is referring to several all expense paid trips to China that Edmonton school board officials took in 2018, including a ten-person delegation that toured the Great Wall and Beijing’s Forbidden City in the fall: that same fall the EPSB renewed its contract with the Confucius Institute.

“We’re seeing really the end of the ‘free ride’ that Confucius Institutes have had, particularly in North America. I don’t think you’re going to see as many new Confucius Institutes in the wake of the high profile crisis to date.”
— David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China

On the other hand, some Edmonton parents are defending the EPSB’s ties to the Confucius Institute. These include parents, Myra Wong and Heather-Jane Au, president of the Edmonton Chinese-Bilingual Education Association. Another supporter is Dawn Knutson, who explains that “it’s easy for critics to undermine programs by overly politicizing them. At no point were my children exposed to Chinese politics or Chinese political thought.” By taking such as stance, Knutson echoes other proponents of the Confucius Institute including UBC’s Prof. Jiang, who maintains that the Confucius Institute is not designed to teach human rights or Chinese politics and international relations; those concerned about undue pressure emanating from the Institute on these topics have misplaced their worries, says Jiang.

A similar refrain has been voiced by David Shambaugh, an American Sinologist and director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University. While Shambaugh is speaking about the situation in the U.S his arguments are also cited by Canadian supporters of the Confucius Institute.

“There’s a kind of McCarthyite undertone I sense that is there [...] I thus far don’t see evidence that [Confucius Institutes] are being politicized. There have been a couple of cases  - there’s certainly a lot of publications, a lot of controversy. There have been a couple of closures [...] but there are nearly 200 Confucius Institutes in the United States. We’ve had less than five controversies, that tells me something. Secondly, there’s a lot of assumptions and innuendo I find in reporting. One assumption is that a Confucius Institute somehow affects the curriculum of Chinese Studies [or] the way China is taught on campus: absolutely wrong.” 

The Confucius Institute as marketed as simply the Chinese version of Western cultural organizations like Germany’s Goethe-Institut: critics remain unconvinced. |  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Confucius Institute as marketed as simply the Chinese version of Western cultural organizations like Germany’s Goethe-Institut: critics remain unconvinced. | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Shambaugh does, however, acknowledge that there needs to be more transparency around how the Confucius Institute operates. The fact that work contracts are kept confidential and under lock and key at the behest of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, is not appropriate, argues Shambaugh.

The Bottom Line

It remains important to highlight the differences between the Canadian and American responses to the growth of the Confucius Institute. Whereas Shambaugh points to the small number of scandals involving the Institute in the United States, the nature of the American education sector is likely partly behind this relatively low number. The greater variety of education models, particularly the greater role played by for-profit education institutions, means that fewer American universities and colleges are concerned with any potential negative externalities of partnering with Confucius Institutes. The for-profit model combined with a lower percentage of university revenue stemming from government funding, means many institutions cannot afford to turn their noses up at the Confucius Institute’s deep pockets. This is seen by the United States having almost twenty times the number of Institutes than Canada, despite having only less than ten times the population.

A further difference of note is that while only five or so scandals (out of the U.S total) is indeed a small percentage, the number of cancelled programs (relative to national totals) is far higher in Canada, especially when one includes the number of Classrooms in both countries. Of the twelve Confucius Institutes (and associated partner networks) in Canada as of 2017, two have since closed or are pending closure. Add prior closures by the Toronto District School Board, Université de Sherbrooke and McMaster University, and one can see that a third of Canada’s Confucius Institutes have been shuttered since 2013. Even if one takes into consideration the closure of all 27 Confucius Institutes (for any reason) in the United States since 2014, as a percentage of total Institutes, the Canadian ratio of closures to national totals is still markedly higher: the ratio of shuttered Confucius Classrooms in Canada is even higher.

Given the continuing partnerships between a host of Canadian schools and the Confucius Institute it is apparent that many Canadian institutions and educators continue to reap some benefits from collaborating with Beijing’s cultural network. The willingness of some Canadian parents, experts and schools to defend the Confucius Institute would appear to indicate that some of the worst infringements against Canadian freedom of speech and education appear to be more isolated than some critics say.

Nevertheless, the rollback of the Confucius Institute’s presence in Canada continues, as the concerns of parents and educators continue to force school boards and universities to re-think their ties. Blanket condemnation of every facet of the Confucius Institute is as unhelpful as uncritical praise for the organization. Serious, justified concerns about Beijing’s hand in shaping the attitudes of young Canadians exist, yet it would be hyperbolic to tar every calligraphy teacher or instructor on Sichuan cuisine working at the Institute as a Janus-faced provocateur hell-bent on undermining Canadian society.

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