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Critics say Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes shut down debate on topics like Tibet

September 8, 2014

By Raffi Boudjikanian

September 8, 2014 - Montreal's Dawson College is planning on renewing a deal to house a controversial language school funded by the Chinese government, as university teachers across Canada are urging their employers to step away from Confucius Institutes over concerns on academic freedom. 

The Montreal CEGEP entered an agreement with China and the Université de Sherbrooke in 2007 to open up the first Confucius Institute in Quebec. Students may enrol in introductory, intermediate and advanced Mandarin classes, as well as calligraphy or Tai Chi.

"It brings us quite interesting opportunities to link with Chinese organizations," said Dawson's director, Richard Filion.

But critics charge the institutes shut down academic debate on any subjects the Chinese government deems controversial.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers sent letters urging nine universities and colleges across Canada to disassociate themselves from existing deals with China.

"You have essentially an arm of the state of the Peoples' Republic of China dictating educational content, dictating hiring practices, and then cases like Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Taiwan are off-limits in terms of discussion. I don't think it's an appropriate thing in our institutions," said the association's executive director, David Robinson. 

CBC News Montreal found a former student of the Confucius Institute at Dawson College who recalled a teacher feeling uneasy when someone in his introductory Mandarin class brought up Tiananmen Square.

"She didn't say anything, she just kind of laughed nervously and kind of went on with the class. We did feel that it's something that she didn't want to discuss at all," Igor Sadikov said.

No directives: Confucius

The Confucius Institute in Quebec said there are no directives issued to teachers on what may be considered off-limits, and each member of the staff may decide what is or isn't appropriate.

Executive Director Meng Rong said she believes politics do not have a place in language courses, but there are no institutional rules against discussions.

"Students come here, they want to learn language, they don't want to come here to discuss any political things," she said. 

Hiring policies

Both Dawson College and the Confucius Institute said Dawson has jurisdiction over who will get to teach classes. 

"We're hiring our teachers, we have full control of the assessment of these teachers, and the quality of the teaching," Filion said. 

Dawson College entered into an agreement with China and the Université de Sherbrooke in 2007 to open up the first Confucius Institute in Quebec. (CBC)

What is not so clear is how the teachers are paid.  Rong said payroll is provided through the tuition fees students fork over for their classes.

But Filion told CBC the money for salaries is "from grants we're receiving to operate the Confucius Institute."

Asked where those grants are from, "the Chinese government," he said.

Filion and Rong agreed the institute receives less than $100,000 a year in grants from China, but Rong insisted that money is only used for special projects such as photo exhibits or field trips, not to pay teachers.  

Dawson College did not hand over a copy of the written agreement between itself and China, saying the document is currently under renewal. It also did not send over a previous version of the agreement. 

Beyond Dawson College 

The Confucius schools have been on the radar of the Canadian Intelligence Security Service, as well.

Its former Asia-Pacific Bureau director, Michel Juneau-Katsuya, said CSIS suspects Confucius Institutes are used by China as satellite spy offices in the West.

He said Canada is of great strategic interest to China.

"We are sitting at all the major tables like NORAD, G20, G8, NATO... so we have our secrets, but we have our friends' secrets as well," he said.

And while Dawson College plans on ploughing ahead with its Confucius program, the Université de Sherbrooke is dropping out for the first time since 2007. 

It said not enough students were interested to justify continuing its partnership with China through Confucius.

Meanwhile, both Concordia and McGill universities said they have been approached by the Chinese government to start a Confucius program, but did not sign up for it.

McGill's Faculty of Arts said the proposal called for "too much external or attempted external control by Chinese government authorities."

Faculty Dean Christopher Manfredi said there were "not enough safeguards to ensure McGill's autonomy over its academic program and its principles of academic freedom."

Six universities sent replies to the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Among them, only Université de Sherbrooke said it would be severing ties with Confucius.

In St. Catharines, Ontario, Brock University said it shared some of the teachers' concerns about academic freedom, but also wrote "the growing ties between China and Canada have been a good thing for both nations, and for the peoples of both countries. Academic relations with China have been an important element of that process." 

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