Written by Adrienne Wu and Marshall Reid.
Image credit: Signing ceremony by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
For the United Kingdom, 2022 was a year of significant change, particularly in its approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Following years of relatively cordial UK-PRC relations, London followed the example of many other European states by shifting to a far more sceptical, confrontational policy toward Beijing. While this transformation was the product of various factors—from growing concerns regarding China’s human rights abuses to rising awareness of the PRC’s coercive economic policies—it was heavily influenced by domestic political manoeuvring. Nowhere was this more evident than in the competition between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, in which both candidates sought to frame themselves as the most tough-on-China. In a move emblematic of this game of China-sceptic one-upmanship, Sunak made the bold claim that he would close all of the UK’s remaining Confucius Institutes, the PRC’s international Mandarin language learning centres.
While this promise might seem to be a relatively minor element of a larger political campaign, it could have substantial implications for the UK’s relationships with the PRC and Taiwan, especially now that Sunak has been elected prime minister. Despite their ostensibly benign mission, Confucius Institutes have become increasingly controversial in recent years. A growing chorus of British think tankers and political figures have described them as outlets for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda and called for their closure. For Taiwan, this mounting backlash against Confucius Institutes could present valuable opportunities for soft power engagement. Indeed, Taipei has already begun talks with UK officials to replace the closing Confucius Institutes with government-funded Taiwan Centres for Mandarin Learning (TCML). Though this is certainly a welcome development, the United Kingdom’s approach to educational cooperation with Taiwan continues to lag far behind that of the United States. If London is truly invested in countering the malign influences of Confucius Institutes and ensuring higher-quality Mandarin education, it should pursue a more proactive, Taiwan-focused strategy.
Comparing the UK and US Approaches
Despite the UK’s plans to close its Confucius Institutes, there is no clear assurance that Confucius Institute closures will result in closer ties with Taiwan. Currently, the UK legislation’s only bill that addresses the issue, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, has no mention of Taiwan and focuses solely on allowing the government closer examination of overseas funding for institutions of higher learning. New amendments to the bill, which have been proposed by the House of Lords and are currently under consideration by the House of Commons, require the Office of Students to oversee funding to higher education institutions and to determine if the funding under consideration presents a risk to “freedom of speech within the law” or “academic freedom.” The main criticism of the bill is that it gives the government concerning levels of control over academic institutions without adequately addressing why higher institutions gravitate to Confucius Institutes and funding from the PRC or its lasting effects on self-censorship.
The language used in this bill is similar to Washington’s legislative response to PRC influence. Citing a need to protect “academic freedom,” Washington took an even more heavy-handed approach to Confucius Institute closures by announcing new provisions to the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act that would authorise the Department of Education to “withhold funding from US institutes that host Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes.” While higher education and the government are right to subject Confucius Institutes to higher levels of scrutiny—either through government oversight or a different third-party review process—to truly support academic freedom, universities must introduce constructive reforms following Confucius Institute closures.
The US-Taiwan Education Initiative is one such example of constructive legislation from the United States. In addition to academic exchanges and joint scholarship programs, the initiative highlights three ways in which Taiwanese can come to the United States to teach Mandarin: as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant with Fulbright Taiwan, as a teacher at one of Taiwan’s American-based TCMLs, and lastly, through the US government’s own Teachers of Critical Language Program (TCLP). In 2022, the initiative supported 97 Taiwanese teachers coming to the United States through TCLP and Fulbright Taiwan and 34 TCMLs have been established in the United States—making the number of TCMLs in the United States greater than the number of Confucius Institutes (34 and 18 respectively). Therefore, lawmakers in the United Kingdom should not only aim to counter the People’s Republic of China’s influence but also introduce their own UK-Taiwan Education Initiative to support the replacement of Confucius Institutes with Taiwanese Mandarin-language learning initiatives if they are truly committed to the cause.
While a prospective shift to TMCLs could provide an opportunity to create closer ties between the United Kingdom and Taiwan, there are still many logistical concerns to consider. As noted by SOAS’ Steve Tsang, there is pressure for Taiwan to refrain from being overly political in its curriculum to avoid replicating the same problems of the Confucius Institutes. In interviews about the TCML program, Taiwan officials have been quick to emphasise that the program values “freedom and democracy” to contrast its differences with Confucius Institutes. Yet, the PRC’s reactionary approach to Taiwan has already politicised the issue of Taiwan to the point that merely acknowledging Taiwan’s existence is already seen as a political stance.
Another complication that could accompany the switch is Taiwan’s relative lack of resources compared to the PRC. The Overseas Community Affairs Council (OCAC) promises to give newly established TCMLs USD 20,000 to cover “course set up expenses,” such as building maintenance and material costs, and an additional USD 10,000 annually in its second and third years. In contrast, Confucius Institutes are usually given between USD 100,000 to $150,000 by partner Chinese universities to cover the costs of establishing an institute. Considering that additional funding has been a strong incentivefor universities to seek closer relations with China, one way that the United Kingdom can present TCMLs as an attractive alternative to Confucius Institutes could be to add their own subsidies to the funding given by OCAC to help make up the difference.
In addition to funding, the UK can also help the longevity of TCMLs by providing adequate recruitment, training, and immigration services—and ensuring prospective participants know about these resources. For example, reducing the barriers to visa application will allow the program to attract better-qualified teachers, and providing consistent training and resources can further improve the program’s quality. To this end, the UK-Taiwan Education Initiative would benefit from holding a similar type of symposium to annual symposiums hosted by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) in 2021 and 2022 as part of the US-Taiwan Education Initiative to make teachers aware of the resources available and to receive feedback on how to further improve those services.
The Question of China
Just a few years ago, the prospect of establishing Taiwan-affiliated language centres in the United Kingdom would have been nearly unthinkable. Indeed, the institutes broadly aligned with the goals of several successive British governments, which prioritised economic and political cooperation with the PRC. As a result of this openness to Chinese engagement, the UK became a global hub for Confucius Institutes. As the UK Parliament’s China Research Group has noted, the UK currently hosts the largest number of institutes of any country, with 30 continuing to operate as of 2022. Furthermore, these institutes have become closely linked with UK government funding, as “almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching at schools […] is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes.”
Given Confucius Institutes’ deep roots in the UK, London’s recent decision to abandon them in favour of TCMLs is particularly noteworthy. However, the move is largely in keeping with broader trends on both sides of the Atlantic. In mainland Europe, the rising wariness of Chinese influence has eroded trust in Confucius Institutes, with many facing defunding or closure. While the institutes remain ubiquitous across the continent, their decline has opened the door for an expanded Taiwanese presence in the Mandarin education field. Already, Taiwan has opened TCMLs in Germany, France, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, and Hungary, suggesting growing support for the program. And in the United States, TCMLs have found an even more welcoming environment. By these metrics, the UK’s shifting approach to Confucius Institutes is not an aberration. Instead, it demonstrates that London is aligning more closely with global trends.
The UK’s recent disavowal of Confucius Institutes indicates a broader shift in British China policy. Unlike past governments, the current administration appears far less eager to engage with the PRC. Instead, Sunak’s government seems more focused on following the US line on China, preferring scepticism to cooperation. While US-China policy is not without flaws, its emphasis on countering Chinese influence operations and prioritisation of Taiwan are worthy of emulation. Accordingly, the UK should seek to further align itself with the United States in its policy toward Mandarin education by eliminating Confucius Institutes and providing openings for TCMLs.
Adrienne Wu is a research assistant at the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI), a Taiwan-focused think tank in Washington, DC.Marshall Reid is a program manager at GTI.