As Xi Jinping visits University College London, it refuses to disclose how much money it has received from China

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Campaigners plan demonstration for visit on Thursday 

University College London (UCL) has refused to disclose how much money it receives from China’s government in support of its Confucius Institute, which President Xi Jinping of China visits tomorrow as part of his State Visit to the UK (1). UCL maintains that disclosing the financial support it receives from an authoritarian foreign government is “not in the public interest”. It has, however, disclosed that it funnelled nearly US$690,000 of Chinese money to English schools in 2013 and 2014 in support of China’s Confucius Classrooms programme (2). In 2009, the Chinese Communist party’s head of propaganda called the Confucius Institute programme “an important part of our overseas propaganda set up” (3). 

The university’s IOE Confucius Institute for Schools is responsible for managing the Confucius Classroom (CC) programme in England on behalf of Hanban, a Chinese government agency. CCs provide teaching of Mandarin but UCL is also tasked with “securing a major expansion of teaching about China” (emphasis added) (4). In February, campaign group Free Tibet submitted a Freedom of Information request to the university, asking it to disclose how much money it had received from Hanban in support of its operations and distributed to schools in support of the programme. 

UCL refused to disclose the information requested, maintaining that:

…the University is of the view the public interest will not be any better or further served by releasing the information related to specific funding awarded by Hanban and that ultimately projects related to advancing Chinese language provision in schools and the education of UK children would be damaged. Therefore we believe that the public interest is best served by withholding this information.(5) 

Free Tibet challenged the decision, stating in their request for review

The public interest in obtaining a full picture of the extent of the investment by a foreign and authoritarian government in English schools and targeted at British children is very strong… Teaching about China in any kind of collaboration with China’s authoritarian government raises a clear risk of inaccuracy, bias or, at worst, propaganda. (6) 

The university authorities then overturned the decision to withhold information regarding sums distributed to schools but maintained their refusal to disclose their own income from China’s government (7). UCL maintained that despite public interest, it was justified in withholding the information because releasing it would pose a risk to its commercial interests, and thus Mandarin teaching in the UK. Guidance for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states public bodies should have a “bias” towards disclosure, and the Act allows “public interest” to override the exemption which allows institutions not to disclose information for commercial reasons (8). Universities responsible for managing the Confucius classroom programme in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have disclosed their income from Hanban in response to Free Tibet FoI requests. 

In addition to providing funds, the agreement between Hanban and the university gives Hanban further control of the UCL Confucius Institutes for Schools’ activities (9):

·         the board of directors for the Confucius Institute is appointed by both Hanban and UCL;

·         the university must accept Hanban’s  judgement on teaching quality;

·         The institute’s activities will “respect cultural tradition” and “not contravene relevant laws and regulations, both in the United kingdom and China”.

Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said: 

“Xi’s presence at the UCL Confucius Institute is a sign of just how great the political importance of the Confucius programme is to China. For Beijing, education is propaganda, and what China does abroad, it does in its own interests. We’re not saying that teachers in Confucius Classrooms are teaching children to worship Mao and curse the Dalai Lama: instead the programme is about fostering a positive view of China and financial dependence on China.  The truth about Tibet, human rights and anything else Beijing doesn’t like is pushed out. 

“We’ve made a simple request for the university to say how much money it gets from an unelected regime that denies freedom to its own citizens and is responsible for brutal repression in Tibet. The public interest in being provided with that information couldn’t be clearer. If the equivalent bodies in Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland are happy to release it, why won’t UCL?” 

A Free Tibet demonstration will take place at UCL tomorrow (Thurs 22 October) as Xi Jinping visits. 

There are 46 Confucius Classroom “hubs” (which serve other schools in the area) in schools in England. They are subsidised by the Chinese government, which provides up to US$10,000 per school each year through UCL, after approval in Beijing of each school's plans and reports for the Classroom (10). The Chinese government provides teaching resources and “Hanban teachers”, Chinese citizens recruited and politically-vetted in Beijing whose salaries and expenses are paid by Hanban. Hanban also subsidises and organises stage-managed trips to China for school pupils and staff. 

The Confucius programme has become increasingly controversial in recent years, with a number of universities closing their Confucius Institutes down. The Toronto School Board voted against a Confucius Classroom programme in its school because of fears about their use of propaganda (11). 

More information about the Confucius Classroom programme in the UK is available in the Free Tibet media briefing here. Further information about the risks associated with the programme and the controversy it has generated is in Free Tibet’s Hosting a Dragon report. 


For further information and comment (including about demonstration at UCL), contact Free Tibet press and media manager Alistair Currie


Free Tibet office: +44 (0)207 324 4605


Notes for editors 

(1)  UCL Freedom of Information appeal response, dated 18 June 2015. Copy available from Free Tibet.

(2)  UCL Freedom of Information request response, dated 3 March 2015. Copy available from Free Tibet.

(3)  The Economist 22 October 2009

(4)  Source: Partnership agreement 2012/13 between UCL IOE and Hanban, obtained by FOI and available from Free Tibet.

(5)  UCL Freedom of Information request response, dated 3 March. Copy available from Free Tibet.

(6)  Appeal to UCL dated 23 April 2015. Copy available from Free Tibet.

(7)  UCL Freedom of Information appeal response, dated  18 June. Copy available from Free Tibet.

(8)  Information Commissioner’s Office Guidance

(9)  Source: agreement between UCL IOE and Hanban, obtained by FOI and available from Free Tibet.

(10)   UCL Freedom of Information responses, dated 18 june and 4 March

(11)  Universities closing Confucius institutes include Stockholm University, University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University. Toronto School Board source: CBC News 27 October 2014 Further information in Free Tibet’s Hosting a Dragon report.