Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 18 September 2022

Beijing-backed Chinese language schools in UK to be replaced with teachers from Taiwan

MPs in talks with Taiwan to help phase out Confucius Institutes as relations between the countries worsen

Vincent Ni

Sun 18 Sep 2022 17.00 AEST

A group of cross-party MPs is in talks with Taiwan to provide Mandarin teachers to the UK as the government seeks to phase out Chinese state-linked Confucius Institutes, the Observer has learned.

There are currently 30 branches of the Confucius Institute operating across the UK. Although controversies have existed for many years, they have continued to teach Britons Chinese language, culture and business etiquette. These schools are effectively joint ventures between a host university in Britain, a partner university in China, and the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF), a Beijing-based organisation.

Until recently, the Beijing-backed programme was viewed positively by the Conservative government. As education minister in 2014, Liz Truss praised the network of Confucius classrooms, saying they “will put in place a strong infrastructure for Mandarin” in the UK.

But Truss has since taken an increasingly hawkish stance on Beijing. Recent reports 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 They also highlighted the limit to free speech in these classrooms and called the UK’s approach to Mandarin teaching “outdated”.

Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin teaching at schools is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, a study conducted by China Research Group in June has shown. This amounts to at least £27m allocated from 2015 to 2024, according to estimates.

Those involved in the talks with the Taiwanese included Tory MP Alicia Kearns. Under the new proposal being seen by MPs, this funding could be redirected to alternative programmes such as those from Taiwan.

Britain’s foreign language capability has been a major topic in Westminster in recent years as the country looks for ways to implement the post-Brexit “global Britain” framework. It was revealed last month that only 14 FCDO officials are being trained to speak fluent Chinese each year. The lack of Mandarin 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, the Chinese-speaking island signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US to expand language teaching. Taipei’s Overseas Community Affairs Council, also a government agency, has been setting up Mandarin learning centres in a number of US cities since last year, in apparent competition with Confucius Institutes.

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