Could a Chinese government agency spy on University of Manitoba students and apply pressure against dissident activities?
That’s what some professors fear.
U of M Faculty Association president Prof. Cameron Morrill says the union is strongly opposed to a proposed deal that could bring the Confucius Institute to campus to teach non-credit language, history, and culture courses. But some professors are taking their concern far beyond the possibility of private contractors teaching on campus–they see far more sinister implications.
“They would supply the teachers from China. What they teach is only what the Chinese government through the (Chinese) education ministry approves of,” said Asian studies Prof. Terry Russell, speaking for several colleagues. “We’re not sure what the real motivation is.”
Russell said that the agency could be used to watch Chinese students, who are the largest group of international students at U of M.
“That would be one of their interests,” he said. “There isn’t a consulate–it would give them an agency to keep an eye on the students.”
Russell said the Chinese government could threaten to cut off U of M’s access to Chinese students if the university does not sign a deal with the Confucius Institute.
“They are a major source of income,” he pointed out.
The institute itself pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent space, Russell said, and some of its chapters at North American universities have switched from non-credit to credit courses.
“We have a real conflict of our principles of academic freedom,” with the potential to have a faculty version of Chinese history and a Confucius Institute version being taught on campus, Russell said.
There was no immediate response to an emailed request for comment from the Confucius Institute’s headquarters in China.
Russell said the Chinese government, through the Confucius Institute, could tell the U of M not to bring in certain speakers or hold certain events, such as having the Dalai Lama on campus or the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
“The very fact they’re considering it means they want to have a better relationship with the Chinese government. It brings a chill,” said Russell.
Morrill said that UMFA objects primarily to the possibility of U of M’s bringing a private teaching group onto campus, as it did with the private language school Navitas.
“We believe that control over the classroom exercised by any government, either foreign or domestic, is not consistent with the kind of education that the U of M aims to provide,” Morrill said. “Our publicly funded classroom facilities are already crowded and it is a disservice to U of M students and Manitoba taxpayers to take space away from U of M students to ‘rent’ to some outside entity.
“Instructors working for non-U of M agencies typically have none of the academic rights and protections that U of M professors and instructors have,” said the UMFA president.
U of M public affairs director John Danakas said that it is premature to discuss a deal that hasn’t even been put on the table, and which would have to be studied by campus administrators before going through the university senate.
“There is no proposal,” Danakas said. “At this point, it’s simply at the exploratory stage. Certainly, those kinds of matters would be discussed if there’s a formal proposal.”