With four different tones, and more than 50,000 separate characters, Chinese Mandarin may be one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn – but it is also one of the most useful.
England’s education ministers recognised that when they set up a scheme to teach Mandarin to state secondary pupils for eight hours a week in 2016.
“A high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese will become increasingly important in our globally competitive economy,” they said.
Since then the Mandarin excellence programme scheme has taught the language to more than 6,000 pupils in about 70 secondaries, with £25m committed to it.
But now there are urgent calls from MPs and China experts for a rethink – and for more funding for Mandarin teaching in UK secondaries to make the programme less reliant on the Chinese state.
At the heart of the controversy are Confucius Institutes – Chinese Government funded cultural centres. There are currently 30 of them based at university campuses across the UK, to promote Chinese culture and help university students learn Mandarin.
One of them – the UCL Institute of Education Confucius Institute – is also responsible for delivering the Government’s flagship schools programme Mandarin excellence programme.
But the institutes are coming under growing British political pressure amid claims that some limit free speech and spy on university students.
The China Research Group of Conservative MPs argues that Confucius Institutes are “effectively run as an arm of the [Chinese] state”. In a recent briefing, the group said that the institute’s teachers – who are approved by a central body – are warned against covering political issues, such as Taiwan or Tibet.
There have been high-profile cases of alleged inappropriate interference in other countries. In 2021, the German education minister said that Beijing exercised “high-level influence” on public life after claims that the Chinese consul general in Dusseldorf forced two institutes to cancel an online talk by two German journalists who had written a book about Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In 2020, Sweden became the first European country to close its Confucius Institutes after ties with Beijing deteriorated.
And now concerns are growing about their impact on British education. In a recent Commons debate, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, said the “very dangerous” institutes had “inserted themselves into schools”.
Alicia Kearns, the co-chair of the China Research Group, said in the same debate that they were “undermining our national security”.
And this week the Tory MP told i that the UK “shouldn’t be handing out unnecessary soft power wins to China’s authoritarian regime”.
“China is our strategic competitor,” she said. “We don’t need its government brand attached to our teaching programmes here in the UK.”
But talk of sidelining the institutions has raised concerns about the knock-on impact on Mandarin. In a recent report, the Higher Education Policy Institute warned that closing Confucius Instituteswould “leave a gap in Mandarin teaching due to a funding and/or teacher shortage”.
This has meant that even those without strong views on China want to rebalance things by beefing up the UK’s own capacity to teach Mandarin.
Oxford University’s Professor Rana Mitter, one of the country’s foremost experts on Chinese history, told i: “In the UK, Confucius Institutes seem mostly to have provided Chinese language training in institutions where it did not previously exist. At this moment, we in the UK need to do much more to fund language training from our own resources – not just Chinese, but European and global languages are losing funding and losing students at university level. Urgent attention to that issue, and securing funding, should be a top priority for Government.”
The same call has been taken up by China hawks, who though alarmed by the country’s rise, recognise that the UK must be able to talk to the superpower in its own language. “We must provide alternative opportunities for the learning of Mandarin,” Ms Kearns told MPs. Her own solution was to draw on “our friends in Taiwan, whose track record in providing language courses is exemplary”.
Julian Fisher, co-founder of Venture Education, a Beijing based consultancy, told i that the Chinese Government “obviously” had a “soft power purpose” for Confucius Institutes. “What’s really difficult with China’s relationship with soft power is that they find it incredibly hard to have things that have a degree of autonomy,” he said. “That always means that they are perceived as tools of the state.”
However, Mr Fisher said he believed they could be a “valuable” resource for teaching Mandarin, and that some of the criticism was overdone. “It almost feels to me like what certain people want is for Confucius Institutes to only be teaching about [the] Tiananmen [Square protests] and Falun Gong and by their absence somehow they are trying to cover the truth.
“And I guess the same thing would be like, do we expect the British Council to be teaching about the Black Hole of Calcutta and the bombing of Dresden?”
UCL declined an i request to speak to the director of the IOE Confucius Institute. On its website, the institute says that it operates through a “bilateral partnership between UCL and Peking University which does not involve any Government organisation in China”.
It says that teachers in its school “Confucius Classrooms” are “free to teach whatever material they think is suitable for their pupils” and “we are not aware of any threats to free speech or open debate within either the university or the IOE Confucius Classrooms since we have been running this programme”.
A Department for Education spokesperson told i: “The role of University College London’s Confucius Institute is to deliver the day-to-day running of the programme. All teachers continue to be employed and monitored by the participating schools, making sure all the usual teaching standards are met.”
Chinese bubble bursts
The turn against Confucius Institutes is just one example of how educational ties between the UK and China are becoming frayed. Last August, i published a feature predicting that after years of expansion into China, British private schools were reaching their “highwater mark” in the country, due to worsening diplomatic relations and a Chinese government clampdown on private and foreign schooling. A few months later, Westminster School announced it was scrapping plans to open six sister sites in China.
Julian Fisher, co-founder of Venture Education, a Beijing based consultancy, said that tighter regulation has “completely burst the bubble”. He also believes that the number of Chinese students coming to UK universities could be “nearing the apex”.
Mr Fisher said that the UK should have confidence that its own universities and laws are sufficiently “robust” to manage the relationship with Confucius Institutes, and that it was ironic that those expressing outrage at restrictions on British schools in China were often the same people who wanted Chinese institutions booted out of the UK.
“I guess for me honestly it’s a little sad, because it feels like a lot of these politicians are essentially saying we can’t change China, therefore we shouldn’t engage with them,” he said. “I’m not sure that that is going to lead to a more secure world in the longer term.”