Swedes axe China-backed Confucius school scheme as relations sour

The Confucius institutes and classrooms teach Chinese language and culture with funding and textbooks from Beijing
The Confucius institutes and classrooms teach Chinese language and culture with funding and textbooks from Beijing
YURI SMITYUK/GETTY IMAGES
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Sweden has shut down the last of its Chinese state-sponsored teaching programmes as relations between the two countries deteriorate into hostility and mutual suspicion.
It is believed to be the first European state to close all its Confuciusinstitutes and classrooms, which teach Chinese language and culture with textbooks and funding from Beijing.
Analysts regard the closure as a sign that the once-cordial ties between Sweden and China are unravelling at speed amid accusations of bullying, meddling and incompetence.
Until 2015 their partnership had been close, with China founding its first European Confucius institute at Stockholm University in 2005 and Volvo, the pride of the Swedish car industry, passing into Chinese hands in 2010.
Yet the governments fell out over the arrest of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who had published books that angered the Chinese authorities.
Since then China has cancelled trade missions to Sweden and its ambassador to Stockholm has pointedly warned that Beijing has said: “For our enemies we have a shotgun.”
In recent weeks Chinese state media have repeatedly attacked Sweden’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, describing it as “capitulation” and a danger to other countries. Numerous commercial and cultural links between the nations have also been severed. The casualties have included all four of the Confucius institutes at Swedish universities, the last of which, in the northern city of Lulea, was closed in December.
Last week the country’s final Confucius classroom, a scheme where Beijing supplies schools with money and textbooks for Chinese language lessons, was scrapped in Falkenberg, a town between Malmo and Gothenburg on the west coast. The local council said it was “very strange that we have teaching in Chinese that is not based on source criticism”.
Bj√∂rn Jerden, head of the Asia programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, said that the end of the Confucius programmes was part of a broader hardening of Sweden’s attitude towards China.
“Public opinion of China has become a lot more negative in Sweden,” Dr Jerden said. “This is quite significant, since Sweden used to be one of the most active countries in Europe in terms of the number of these agreements.”
The purpose of the Confucius programme, which is run by Hanban, an arm of the Chinese education ministry, is ostensibly to promote the study of China in foreign countries, ranging from calligraphy to business Chinese. State media have compared it to the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute.
There are 525 Confucius institutes and 1,100 classrooms around the world, including branches at 13 universities and 45 schools in Britain, among them independent schools.
Critics often claim that the project is a vehicle for propaganda. Several universities in the US and Canada have scrapped their Confucius institutes and last year New South Wales in Australia closed all its Confucius classrooms.