US politicians linking Confucius Institutes with espionage is taking paranoia to the extreme
Chinese spies are certainly interested in stealing industrial secrets and US military technology, but they are certainly not doing it through these cultural outposts
I want to look at the paranoid nonsense being talked about the Confucius Institutes that have mushroomed across the world since 2005, with US politicians in particular implying they are hotbeds of espionage, generating some kind of existential threat to national security.
But first, I want to slip back half a century in time, to 1967. This was the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Vietnam war was at its height, as was the Cultural Revolution. International Marxists were plotting the global overthrow of capitalism. Paris students had closed the universities and were pelting cobble stones at police.
I was studying for university exams in the sleepy Lincolnshire town of Grantham, and made my own little gesture: I wrote off to SACU – the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. In due course I received a bunch of unintelligible propaganda, and became perhaps the only person in Grantham to possess one of Mao’s “little red books”.
All was forgotten. I went off to Pakistan as a volunteer teacher for a year, and returned to study a degree in social anthropology and development economics. Coincidentally, I lived in student residences alongside a tiny group of mainland Chinese in the UK to learn English. I ended up teaching some of them, as I used my Pakistan teaching experience to finance my way through university.
Two years after graduation I arrived at the Financial Times on the foreign desk just as Mao died and Deng Xiaoping began the long slow process of pulling China out of the stone age. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time studying and writing about China, including meeting a few lowly staff from their London embassy.
Then one routine morning on the FT’s foreign desk I received a call from a man who said he would like to meet and “chat over a beer and a sandwich” at an address that even I knew to be the home of MI5. There followed one of life’s more surreal experiences. I was interrogated intensively on my links with China and Chinese. He even showed me a copy of my original hand-written note to SACU in 1967.
I never heard from this man again. Even now I don’t know whether he suspected I was a spy, or was working out whether I should be recruited as a spy. Either way, I obviously did not qualify.
So lesson number one: yes, China undoubtedly has lots of spies, and who should be surprised? If MI5 was monitoring the correspondence of a pimply teenager in an inconsequential Grantham grammar school back in 1967 then we in the West keep them good company.
Now leap forward to 1984 and a dingy government guest house in Nanjing – one of the many undistinguished places I stayed in during long journalistic trips through China. There was only one other person in the electricity-starved coffee bar, so we got to chatting. He was an American lawyer. He was manning a “representative office”. He spoke perfect Mandarin.
I asked him how it was that so many Americans were fluent in Chinese, when in the UK at the time it was almost impossible to study the language (I think two universities offered courses). The answer was simple. Lots of US universities offered Mandarin language courses. Quite matter-of-factly he told me that most of the funding came either from pro-Taiwan Chinese Americans, or from the Pentagon. He then went on to say how little work he had in his representative office, and how his “real work” was secretly to distribute bibles. He was a Mormon, and this was part of his missionary duty.
Lesson number two: thousands in the US have over recent decades spent serious time covertly trying to subvert “Godless Communism”, whether formally as spies, or as Christians, or running “representative offices” in nondescript cities across China. Even if some people inside the 500-plus Confucius Institutes around the world, or working on Belt and Road projects, are up to the same spying game – and I think more than 99.9 per cent are not – I find the hypocritical foundations of the current US upsurge of alarm and moral outrage a tad irksome.
In response to the ridiculous McCarthy-style paranoia of US political leaders like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio supporting the John McCain 2019 National Defence Authorisation Act because they believe “Confucius Institutes are a key way the regime infiltrates American education to silence criticism and sanitise education about China”, I turn to John Pomfret at The Washington Post, who spent time as the Post’s Beijing bureau chief: “If American students are so easily brainwashed by biased textbooks and biased teaching methods imported from China, then we as a nation really are in a fix.
“There is no doubt [that] Chinese spies are interested in stealing industrial and military technology from [US] companies. There is also no doubt that they are NOT doing it from Confucius Institutes.”
There is no doubt that the Confucius Institutes are working hard to spread understanding of Chinese culture, and to teach Chinese language overseas. Since their foundation in 2005 they have grown to over 525 institutions in 146 countries – including one here in Hong Kong housed in the Polytechnic University. They employ 5,000 language instructors, most of them from the mainland, and have an estimated 1.4 million students.
David Shambaugh at Brookings estimates they have Chinese government funding of about US$310 million, and that any assumption that Confucius Institutes somehow affect Chinese studies curricula in American universities is “absolutely wrong”.
Yes it is true that they are opaque and tiresomely uncommunicative, don’t include materials about Taiwan independence, Tibet, or Tiananmen in their lesson plans, and are paranoid about the Falun Gong, but in almost every way they are strikingly similar to the British Council, Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute.
But with an acute global shortage of instructors able to teach Chinese as a foreign language, the Confucius Institutes must on balance be a force for good. For those convinced that there are spies under every rock, there are better places to look.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view