UNIVERSITIES in Scotland have accepted millions in funding from a Chinese state-backed programme that has been blacklisted in several countries over fears it is being used to advance Beijing’s political agenda.

Five universities have accepted more than £13 million in funding for “Confucius Institutes”, which purportedly aim to promote Chinese culture.

The money, given to the universities between 2006 and 2021, has mainly come from the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Language Council, colloquially known as Hanban.

Edinburgh University has taken more than any other university in the UK with a total of £6 million, followed by Strathclyde University with £5.6 million.

Other universities include Heriot-Watt, which has accepted around £850,000 since 2015. Glasgow University and Aberdeen have accepted around £1 million between them.

In more recent years, however, much of this funding has come through Chinese universities, rather than directly from the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The Confucius Institute programme began in 2004 and aimed to establish centres across the globe for Chinese language and culture promotion. These include programmes on calligraphy, how to cook tai chi, music classes and art and craft.

The programme has faced widespread criticism since its inception, especially after its international expansion.

Accusations against CI, which include that it “undermines academic freedom” at host universities, stem from its close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

It has also faced accusations of industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese students abroad and attempts to advance the Chinese government's political agendas on issues such as Taiwan and human rights.

Following a widespread backlash over a lack of transparency, the office of Chinese Language, which runs the programme, changed its title in July 2020 to the “Centre for Language Education and Cooperation”.

This has done little to allay concerns, however.

Oliver Mundell, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that while he recognised the need for universities to seek international funding, it must be done transparently “and should never lead to academics or institutions being censored on subjects such as human rights”.

He added: "Eyebrows will be raised in these cases given the vast sums involved and the close links to the Chinese Government”.

Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesperson at Westminster and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has previously called for more action, education and awareness to counter foreign disinformation in Scotland.

“Russia, China and Iran have all been credibly accused of attempting to distort the information ecosystem in Scottish public life, using a range of platforms and media to manipulate public opinion,” he said, adding: “These campaigns do not themselves create distrust or division, but instead exploit existing rifts in societies and capitalise on pre-existing feelings and beliefs.”

Mr McDonald suggested that China’s Confucius Institutes at Scottish universities is one example of misinformation networks operating in plain sight.

It comes as the programme faces questions regarding its motives in several countries.

The US Senate approved a bill by unanimous consent in March 2021 that increased oversight of Confucius Institutes operating on university campuses.

American universities that fail to comply with the new rules would have their state funding cut.

Senator John Kennedy, who introduced the bill, noted: “Confucius Institutes are under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in all but name.

This bill would give colleges and universities full control over their resident Confucius Institutes and restore freedom of thought on their campuses.”

European countries have similarly increased the scrutiny of Confucius Institutes.

Sweden closed the last of its schemes in April 2020, with Norway following suit a year later.

In Belgium, the director of the Institute at Vrije Universiteit Brussel was deported from the country for espionage, causing it to be closed down.

But despite these efforts, there remain over 500 Confucius Institutes around the world.

Among those leading the campaign to survey CI programmes in the UK is the China Research Group, which was set up among backbenchers in Westminster to pressure Whitehall to take a tougher stance against Beijing’s influence.

Its director, Julia Pamilih, told The Herald: “Confucius Institutes play a big role in the teaching of Mandarin - and China more broadly - in Scotland.

"We should ask whether financial dependence on a foreign authoritarian government to teach that country’s language is the right approach.”

Ms Pamilih added that a culture of reliance in Scotland with regards to Chinese funding has made universities apprehensive about cutting ties, for they would risk losing millions of pounds.

“The Scottish Government should look at increasing their funding or non-CI partnerships to reduce dependence,” she said.

Glasgow University raises almost a third of its tuition fees from Chinese students, the highest proportion of any leading UK university, with Edinburgh University not far behind.

The Chinese government has been accused of using students to aggressively assert political influence in Western nations, including Australia amid tensions due to trade.

Campaigners from all over the world are raising the issues affiliated with CI. Free Tibet, a human rights organization based in London, is very vocal about its concerns.

John Jones, Campaigns and Research Manager at Free Tibet told The Herald: "For decades the Chinese government has been working to eradicate Tibetan culture from its schools and replace it with propaganda. It has even resorted to arresting teachers and destroying schools to get its way.

“Xi Jinping and his government have no interest in furthering the education of students in Scotland, they simply want to feed them propaganda and suppress the truth about their brutal oppression.

He added: “There is a clear benefit for students learning the Chinese language and about China's culture, but no university that believes in academic freedom can even consider accepting money from such a corrupt and totalitarian source”

Scotland’s government has previously been blasted for their links with China.

In 2018, Nicola Sturgeon announced they would invest a further £745,000 in the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (CISS) Scholarship Programme.

The joint scheme between CISS and the Tianjin Education Commission allows Scottish students to study and live in China for a year.

But again, critics claim the institute is part of the Chinese state’s propaganda arm.

Even after repeated warnings and mainstream parties calling for the banning of such institutes—including the Scottish Greens who labelled them a “propaganda tool of a state responsible for widespread and grievous human rights abuse”—the programme continues to have the financial and political backing of the Scottish government.

While other countries have blacklisted the institutes, Scotland has continuously welcomed new programmes under the governments of Jack McConnell, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

Scotland’s links with the programmes have strengthened, regardless of the claims of the erosion of academic freedom and propaganda.

In 2020, it was reported that students from Hong Kong that were studying in Scotland called for the Confucious Institutes to be closed down, citing that they felt “intimidated on campuses.”

A year later a whistleblowing Chinese diplomat told investigative journalists at The Ferret that “the authorities were controlling students in Scotland” and shared that students that attended the institutes sang a song in praise of President Xi.

Glasgow University stated that funding received by the Confucius Institute from the Chinese Ministry of Education was via Hanban.

They added that funding from Hanban ceased in the 2020/21 financial year.

Strathclyde University stated: “The Confucius Institute for Scotland's Schools (CISS) in the University of Strathclyde was established in 2012 and between 2012 and 2020, it received funding from Hanban, a department under the Chinese Ministry of Education. Hanban's main function was to support the promotion of Mandarin Chinese learning outside China.”

A spokesperson for Universities Scotland added: “Universities engage in all their international activities, including the hosting of Confucius Institutes, with open eyes and due diligence, ensuring that it’s consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

"Internationalisation brings many rewards, to higher education and Scotland more broadly, but it also brings risk; universities take a responsible attitude to risk management in all teaching and research partnerships, irrespective of geography or politics.

"All our universities have robust governance structures which ensure funding received is in keeping with their institutional values."