He has also accused his competition for the top job, Liz Truss, of being “too soft” on China.
Talking to the World at One show on BBC Radio 4 on July 25, former hopeful Tom Tugendhat and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that the institutes are not a reflection of “real Chinese history”.
“The problem with Confucius Institutes comes with how they’re managed by the Chinese Communist Party, not what their stated aims are but with their unstated aims – to make sure that the explanation of Chinese politics, history, culture and so on is in the model of the CCP, not in the model of real Chinese history with Chinese people,” Tugendhat said.
“They’ve been very active in silencing debate”
“It comes from the propaganda arm of the CCP – the United Front – which Mao himself said was more important than the military… they’ve been very active in silencing debate,” he added.
On top of Sunak’s promise to close down the UK’s CIs, he also said he would “kick the CCP out of our universities”, making institutions declare foreign funding over the sum of £50,000.
During the latest debate between Sunak and current foreign secretary Truss on July 25, multiple accusations were thrown about regarding the other’s cooperation with China in various avenues.
“There was a time when Liz was talking about having a golden era of relationships China and on a mission there, she was talking about having deeper collaboration in things like food security and technology,” Sunak said during the debate aired on the BBC.
Truss was previously a junior education minister between 2014-16, under the leadership of David Cameron.
She hit back, saying that it was not something Sunak ever advocated for in his time as chief secretary to the treasury and chancellor.
“As recently as a month ago, you were pushing for closer trade relationships with China… the tougher stance [the UK] has taken on China has been driven by the foreign office,” she told Sunak and the studio audience.
New CIs are still opening in the UK according to the China Research Group – with the Open University opening the the “world’s first online” CI in May. Despite the tough stance on China both candidates are wishing to take, the majority of UK government spending on Mandarin Language teaching is channelled through university-based Cis – at least £27m allocated from 2015 to 2024.
“Nobody is anti-China, but it’s a question of being defensive of the UK”
This contradicts the approaches that countries like the US and Sweden are taking, with the US closing many in the last few years and only having 17 left, and Sweden closing its last in 2020.
On the World At One, a clip from the University of Sheffield’s 10th anniversary of its CI describes China as “going towards being the next great superpower” and that it is at students’ advantages to have a “taste and see the benefits” in the future.
“Nobody is anti-China, but it’s a question of being defensive of the UK,” Tugendhat said.
“The problem is not teaching Chinese – it’s a fantastic thing to do… Chinese students who come to the UK who seek to learn in our free society and have the academic freedom we would support for anybody.
“The United Front provides and organisation through which those Chinese students can be spied upon,” he added.
He said he was “very pleased” both candidates were speaking against China, despite the competition, and it’s why he’s “campaigned so hard against CIs and in favour of academic freedom”.