Tibet campaigners challenge China-sponsored classrooms in schools

Monday, 30 March 2015

Financial investment, free teachers and subsidised China trips used to incentivise “major expansion of teaching about China”

Letters and dossiers will be sent to schools and councils across the UK next week by campaign group Free Tibet, raising concerns about their “Confucius Classrooms”, a Chinese-language teaching project financially supported by the government of China. Described by a senior Chinese official as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up” (1) and tasked with expanding teaching about China throughout the curriculum (2), more than 90 Confucius Classrooms are now open in schools in the UK and there are more than 650 worldwide (3).

Despite China’s status as a dictatorship guilty of widespread human rights abuse, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted by Free Tibet to British schools appear to show that no local councils (which are responsible for education) or school governors had substantive discussions in advance of the opening of their Confucius Classrooms - only a single individual is reported to have expressed reservations about the programme out of more than 100 FOI responses (4). In response to another FOI request, the Institute of Education at University College London - which administers the programme in England on behalf of the Chinese government - has refused to disclose how much Chinese government money it has disbursed to schools, maintaining that “the public interest is best served by withholding this information” (5).

Further Free Tibet FOI requests reveal that China currently channels $10,000 per year to each Confucius Classroom school in the UK (6) after its Classroom budget, plan and report have been have been approved by Confucius Institute Headquarters (known as Hanban) in Beijing (7). Hanban also provides teaching resources, subsidises school trips to China and supplies schools with “Hanban teachers” - qualified teachers from China whose salaries are paid by China’s government and who are answerable to Hanban. Subject to political vetting by Chinese authorities on recruitment, they are obliged to support the positions and policies of the Chinese government (8). Free Tibet’s enquiries show that there are currently at least 80 Hanban teachers in the UK and the total is likely to be around 100 (9).

Free Tibet is sending all UK schools which have Confucius Classrooms a dossier, Hosting a Dragon (10), which outlines the risks associated with the Classrooms, including how bias in classroom resources, the selection of topics taught and the use of Hanban teachers present students with an exclusively positive view of China and prevent them learning about the lives of Chinese people in an authoritarian state and about wider issues such as democracy, human rights, Hong Kong and Tibet.

In the letter accompanying the dossier (11), Free Tibet asks schools hosting the Classrooms to show what steps they have taken to ensure that their presence and the financial support of China’s government does not lead to “a whitewash” of China’s human rights record and occupation of Tibet. Free Tibet is offering support to schools directly to help them identify resources and opportunities to ensure that pupils are properly informed. Letters will also be sent to school governors and local councils, seeking greater democratic oversight of the programme.

In the letter, Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren writes:

“Free Tibet appreciates the challenges schools face in providing Chinese-language teaching and we strongly believe that increased contact between the people of China and the people of Britain is a positive thing. Our concern is that in the case of Confucius Classrooms schools are facilitating that teaching and contact on terms effectively determined by a government that suppresses free speech inside its own borders and which is responsible for widespread human rights abuses, particularly in Tibet. This carries risks for both school and pupils.”

Confucius Institutes in universities have been the subject of intense controversy in recent years with a number of universities across the world closing their institutes. In October 2014, the Toronto District School Board voted overwhelmingly against establishing any relationship with the Confucius Classroom programme (12).

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren says:

“Free Tibet isn’t out to criticise educators doing their best to provide opportunities for their pupils in a tough economic climate. But however well-intentioned they may be in hosting Confucius Classrooms, they must understand that China’s authoritarian government is seeking to control what children outside China, learn about China. A student who studies China and is taught nothing about its occupation of Tibet, its denial of freedom to its own citizens and its appalling human rights record is by default receiving propaganda, instead of the balanced education we should all expect. If the price of Chinese-language teaching is a whitewash of China’s injustices, then too high a price is being paid.

“In the UK, councils and school governors seem to have nodded through the Confucius Classroom programme with their eyes closed. There’s little reason to suppose that in most countries, the same thing doesn’t occur. Indeed, for poorer countries with struggling education systems it is an offer that will seem too good to refuse. Wherever Confucius Classrooms are, there is an urgent need for local and national debates about the place China has been given in the education of children. China is explicit and unrepentant about its opposition to ‘Western values’ such as democracy and human rights. This is China’s ‘soft power’ approach in action and the apparently unchallenged spread of Confucius Classrooms across the world shows that so long as China comes bearing gifts, it can usually expect a warm reception. Children and teachers in Tibet’s schools have frequently resisted the blatant Chinese propaganda they are exposed to: outside China, the approach is friendlier and the propaganda more subtle but the aim is the same.”

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For further information, comment or copies of documents, contact Free Tibet campaigns and media manager Alistair Currie:
E: alistair@freetibet.org
Office: +44 (0)207 324 4605

Notes for editors

(1) The Economist 22 October 2009 http://www.economist.com/node/14678507
(2) Institute of Education agreement with Confucius Institute Headquarters, obtained by Freedom of Information request – copy available from Free Tibet
(3) Hanban website http://english.hanban.org/node_10971.htm
(4) Free Tibet Freedom of Information asked for minutes of governor and local authority meetings pertaining to the opening of the Classrooms. 64 councils were contacted, of whom 56 replied; 95 schools were contacted of whom 37 replied. Copies of responses and further information available from Free Tibet.
(5) Institute of Education Freedom of Information request response, dated 3 March 2015. Copy available from Free Tibet.
(6) Freedom of Information request responses from Institute of Education Confucius Institute for Schools (IOECIS) (3 March 2015) and Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools at the University of Strathclyde (dated 11 February 2015)
(7) ibid
(8) Hanban http://english.hanban.org/node_7973.htm; BBC News 22 December 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-30567743
(9) FoI replies and information on IOECIS website https://ciforschools.wordpress.com/about-us/confucius-classroom/hanban-teachers/ioe-hanban-teacher-2014-15/
(10) Free Tibet Hosting a Dragon report, available at http://freetibet.org/files/Hosting_a_Dragon.pdf
(11) Copy available from Free Tibet
(12) CBC News 27 October 2014 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/tdsb-votes-to-end-confucius-institute-partnership-1.2817805