HUMAN rights groups have urged Scottish universities to sever links with Chinese language centres that have sparked worldwide fears over academic freedom.

Free Tibet campaigners believe Scotland's four Confucius Institutes - which are funded and staffed by Communist authorities in China - are fronts for Beijing propaganda.

Students and other activists have questioned why the institutes - hosted by Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities - have not proved controversial despite a growing backlash elsewhere in the Western world.

Major universities in the United States have pulled out of deals with Confucius Institutes in recent months, as have schools in Canada, amid growing unease of their use as an instrument of Beijing "soft power".

The American Association of University Professors has declared the institutes to be "an arm of the Chinese state" that is "allowed to ignore academic freedom" and called for them to be closed down in the US. Its Canadian equivalent had already done the same.

Edinburgh University, which has hosted Scotland's first Confucius Institute since former Jack McConnell signed an historic deal with Beijing in 2006, has no such qualms.

The university's chapter of Students for a Free Tibet is not so sure.

Former president Amie Robertson said: "The Confucius Institutes are directly run by the Chinese Government; the Chinese Government is anti-democratic and anti-human rights and therefore should not be hosted at Edinburgh University, or any other Scottish university.

"Accepting their money would allow for the censorship of topics like Tibet and Taiwan.

"Hosting the Confucius Institutes means allowing Chinese propaganda on our campuses."

Fellow campaigner Takuji Usui, said: "Promoting the institute does not just support China's soft power but strengthens its hard power."

Hanban, the state body that runs the institutes, and its supporters in the west dismiss such criticism and insist its work is purely practical to encourage language learning.

However, Hanban's head, Xi Lu, in a landmark Christmas interview confirmed all teachers at Confucius Institutes would toe official Beijing lines.

Ms Xi told the BBC: "Every mainland teacher we send, all of them will say Taiwan belongs to China. We should have one China. No hesitation."

Critics claim that all Hanban teachers - in Scotland or beyond - as state employees are required to report all questions of Tibet and other human rights issues. Ms Xi confirmed such questions were monitored.

A spokesman for Edinburgh University said: "There has been no loss of academic freedom nor inhibition of academic debate at the University of Edinburgh as a consequence of Hanban's support for the Confucius Institute.

"Edinburgh's Confucius Institute and the University of Edinburgh continue to conduct open and critical debate about China alongside our efforts to promote cultural outreach, knowledge exchange and dialogue.

"The Institute has contributed to significant discussion of matters relating to contemporary China."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "Respect for human rights and the rule of law underpins all of Scotland's dealings with China.

"The Scottish Government has consistently condemned human rights abuses wherever the occur and whomever they are committed by."

The Chinese Government has hinted that it believes criticism of Confucius Institutes is Sinophobic. Its foreign ministry said: "We hope everybody can make joint efforts to reject prejudice and work together to better build these bridges of friendship and make them stronger."