SHE was teaching on the other side of the world. But still Sonia Zhao felt the oppressive weight of China’s authoritarian rulers in her classroom.
The 25-year-old was working in Canada for one of hundreds of Confucius Institutes for Chinese language and culture still mushrooming around the globe in recent years. As someone who followed Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual practice persecuted in her homeland, Ms Zhao knew she could be in trouble, even in Ontario. And, so, she feared could her family back in China.
Her story was recently told for the first time in Scotland, the country with the world’s highest concentration of Confucius Institutes, in the Edinburgh screening of an award-winning documentary.
In the Name of Confucius by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Doris Liu was premiered at the city chambers in the capital amid growing concern – here and abroad – about both academic freedom at Communist-run and funded teaching centres.
Trailer for In The Name of Confucius
Ms Zhao left the now closed Confucius Institute at McMaster University in Canada in 2011 and claimed asylum in 2011. But her’s – thanks to Ms Liu’s film – is one of the few voices of a Confucius Institute (CI) teacher to be heard freely.
Her words echo those of critics of CI from groups like Falun Gong, Tibetans and Taiwan who say they are written out of lessons on China.
Protests against Confucius Institute in Canada, still image from In The Name of Confucius
Ms Zhao told the film: “I was instructed to avoid talking about Tibet and Taiwan, If I could not avoid mentioning these, I was to change the topic. If students chased me for an answer, I was told that I must say Tibet and Taiwan belong to China. I think that this violates freedom of speech.”
Ms Zhao said she had an “an official script” to use in classrooms. She also said she had to sign a contract that prohibited her from being a member of Falun Gong. She said: “It was shocking to see Falung Gong mentioned in the contract. I had been hiding my beliefs for many years. I was really scared.”
Ms Liu in her film recorded how one major school board, Toronto’s, pulled out of its CI deal. Evidence included textbooks – spotted by Chinese-speaking parents – full of Maoist rhetoric. She also challenged bureaucrats backing other Canadian CIs to say defend the institutes’ ‘dscriminartory’ employment practices. The film records one Canadian woman behind a CI in British Columbia dismiss her concerns as “xenophobia”.
But In the Name of Confucius, which was also shown to an audience at the House of Commons this month, also cited Chinese officials behind blunt about the purpose of CIs. Xu Lin, of Hanban, the body which funds CIs and with which the Scottish government and Scottish universities co-operates, was shown on Chinese TV explaining their role. Xu said: “We send the teachers. We send the textbooks. It’s like the foreign universities work for us. CIs, as many people say, are an important part of our soft power.”
Scottish authorities, which began working with Hanban under Labour and have continued to do so for a decade, have always claimed that all teaching must reach Scottish standards.
Ms Liu, speaking to The Herald, said tactics for CIs could vary from country to country but that they would always seek influence. She said: “I am a film-maker, not an activist, but I think the Scottish Government should look seriously at what is happening in other countries and take this matter seriously.”
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