A group of cross-party British lawmakers is in talks with Taiwan to provide Chinese-language teachers to the UK as the British government seeks to phase out Chinese state-linked Confucius Institutes.
There are 30 branches of the institute operating across the UK. Although controversies have existed for many years, they have continued to teach Britons Chinese language, culture and business etiquette.
The schools are effectively joint ventures between a host university in Britain, a partner university in China and the Chinese International Education Foundation, a Beijing-based organization.
Until recently, the Beijing-backed program was viewed positively by British authorities.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss in 2014 praised the network of Confucius classrooms. Serving as education minister at the time, she said the institutes “will put in place a strong infrastructure for Mandarin” in the UK.
However, Truss has since taken an increasingly hawkish stance on Beijing. Reports last week suggested that she was prepared to declare China an “acute threat” to the UK’s national security, placing it in the same category as Russia.
As bilateral relations between China and the UK continue to deteriorate, the Confucius language learning and teaching project has been under heavy scrutiny.
Campaigners have questioned the funding and recruitment process of the Chinese-language teaching initiative. They also highlighted the limit to free speech in the classrooms and called the UK’s approach to Chinese-language teaching “outdated.”
Almost all British government spending on Chinese-language teaching at schools is channeled through university-based Confucius Institutes, a study conducted by the China Research Group showed in June.
This amounts to at least ￡7 million (US$8.1 million) allocated from 2015 to 2024, according to estimates.
Under the new proposal, the funding could be redirected to alternative programs such as those from Taiwan.
Britain’s foreign-language capability has been a major topic in Westminster in the past few years as the UK looks for ways to implement the post-Brexit “global Britain” framework.
It was last month revealed that only 14 British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials are being trained to speak fluent Chinese each year.
The lack of Chinese-language proficiency raised concerns for British diplomacy and also put language teaching under the spotlight.
Such concerns are shared in the US, too, and Taiwan has stepped in.
In December 2020, Taipei signed a memorandum of understanding with Washington to expand Chinese-language teaching in the US.
In Taipei, the Overseas Community Affairs Council has been setting up Chinese-learning centers in a number of US cities since last year, in apparent competition with the Confucius Institutes.
The initiative came after British lawmaker Alicia Kearns last month called on Taiwan to play a bigger role in teaching Mandarin in the UK to enhance public understanding about Taiwan as Britons become increasingly distrustful of the Chinese Communist Party.
In an interview, the Conservative Party lawmaker expressed her hope that the government of Taiwan “comes proactively to the British government” to offer to help Britons improve their Mandarin.
A member of the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Kearns in June proposed an amendment to the Higher Education Bill, which would give the government the power to shut down the Confucius Institutes at British universities over academic freedom concerns.
If people in the UK want to learn Mandarin at university or another school, they can only go to a Confucius Institute, but Confucius Institutes “do not teach accurate history” and are under the control of the Chinese state, Kearns said.
“That needs to end,” she added.
However, Andrew Methven, who began studying Chinese two decades ago and now runs the Slow Chinese newsletter focused on language learning, said that outsourcing language teaching “is not a solution.”
“There needs to be a much deeper change in how we understand China in our education system,” he said.
“For example, considering how China can be included more in the existing syllabus at GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] level and below — such as China’s role in the Second World War, as well as looking at earlier parts of Asian history,” he said. “At A-level and beyond, language should be taught based on experiences of people who have actually learned it, and not outsourced to anywhere — China, Taiwan or anywhere else.”
Additional reporting by CNA
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