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China hawks seek to ban Confucius Institutes from Britain

U.K. Conservative backbenchers launched a bid Wednesday night to ban China’s controversial Confucius Institutes from operating in the country.

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns submitted an amendment that would create a duty for universities to report the creation of new institutes and give ministers the power to ban them over freedom of speech and academic freedom concerns.

The proposal has garnered cross-party support and backing from a dozen influential Tory backbenchers, including the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and chair of the One Nation caucus Damian Green.

The Higher Education Bill, which is due before the Commons next week, could now become another major test of Tory party discipline, shortly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly survived a confidence vote among his Conservative colleagues.

Funded by the Chinese government, Confucius Institutes are meant to be Chinese culture and language centers abroad. But several countries including the U.S. and Sweden are shutting them down over concerns they are used for spying, and are censoring topics on political grounds.

There is a network of 30 Confucius Institutes in the U.K.

Tugendhat said: “We have seen the pressure that the Chinese Communist Party puts on those who speak out. We should not be reliant on an authoritarian state to teach its language in Britain.” Kearns added that the CCP “strangles freedom of speech at home yet uses British universities to rewrite the realities of its historic and contemporary actions.”

Opposition party MPs including Labour’s Chris Bryant and the Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael are backing the amendment. Cross-party support makes it likelier that the amendment gets selected for a vote by the Commons speaker. Should Labour and the Liberal Democrats back it, it would create a major headache for government whips.

An education department official told London Playbook that ministers would look at the proposal but the department is seeking a weaker move that would increase oversight of overseas funding for higher education institutions. 

Confucius Institutes are coming under scrutiny in several Western countries, including Germany. In 2021 the then-education minister Anja Karliczek warned that Beijing exercised “high-level influence” on public life after claims that the Chinese consul general in Dusseldorf forced two local institutes to cancel an online talk by two German journalists who had written a book about Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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