This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The British government is coming under fire from critics who say it is backing away from the strong stance on China signaled by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his race for leadership amid calls for curbs on the network of Communist Party-backed Confucius Institutes on university campuses.
“Chinese Communist Party aggression is global,” U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher warned Friday while leading a bipartisan congressional delegation in London.
“The United States and United Kingdom face common economic, military and ideological threats posed by the CCP,” according to comments retweeted by the official Twitter account of the Select Committee on the CCP, which he chairs.
Sunak has been criticized publicly by two former leaders of the ruling Conservative Party in recent days, including former Prime Minister Liz Truss, who renewed her calls for Confucius Institutes that currently operate in the United Kingdom to be shut down, in line with Sunak’s leadership election pledge.
“Confucius Institutes in the U.K. should be closed down immediately,” Truss said in a May 17 speech to the Prospect Foundation during a recent trip to democratic Taiwan.
“Instead the service could be provided by organizations with the support of Hong Kong nationals and Taiwanese nationals who’ve come to the UK freely,” she said.
The state-sponsored Confucius Institute program, named after the ancient Chinese philosopher, was established 20 years ago to promote Chinese language and culture overseas. There are more than 530 institutes based at universities worldwide, 30 in the U.K.
According to a recent report by the U.K.-based group UK-China Transparency, staff at the institutes are recruited to enforce Chinese Communist Party discipline and values overseas and are “obliged to undermine free speech and to conduct harassment on command.”
A Downing Street spokesman responded to Truss’ speech by saying that the government “regularly” assesses the risk of overseas interference in British higher education, including Confucius Institutes.
But he stopped short of promising a ban on the institutes, which have been implicated in attempts to limit freedom of expression on overseas campuses, particularly on topics sensitive to Beijing.
“We are taking action to remove any government funding from Confucius Institutes in the UK, but currently judge that it would be disproportionate to ban them,” the spokesman said in comments reported by several major news outlets ahead of the congressional delegation’s visit.
“Like any international body operating in the UK, Confucius Institutes need to operate transparently and within the law, and with a full commitment to our values of openness and freedom of expression,” he said.
By contrast with the United States, where universities have canceled agreements with dozens of Confucius Institutes and police have arrested two men in connection with an alleged secret Chinese police station in New York, authorities in the United Kingdom appear not to be in a hurry to clamp down on Beijing’s political influence.
Former ruling Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said Sunak now seems to be backing away from pledges made during his race for the party leadership.
“The prime minister made a series of pledges when he stood for premiership,” he told TalkTV. “No one forced him to do it. He said that China was a systemic threat, the greatest threat that actually we faced.”
“[He] said we needed to deal with that threat, and now our policy towards China is ‘robust pragmatism.’ If you know what that means, then you’re a genius, because frankly, I have no idea what it means,” Duncan Smith said, accusing Confucius Institutes of spying on students from Hong Kong and mainland China while they are studying in the United Kingdom.
He also criticized the government for dragging its feet on shutting down unofficial Chinese police stations on British soil.
“There are at least four in the U.K. Every other government is now moving against them … but we’ve taken no action,” Duncan Smith said in a video clip of the interview posted to his Twitter account.
“The Foreign Office and the Treasury have basically watered down the policies because they don’t want to upset China,” he said.
He hit out at the government for doing nothing to retaliate against the attacks on a Hong Kong protester by staff at the Chinese consulate in Manchester, including the then-consul general. “They were quietly allowed to leave,” Duncan Smith said.
Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said Sunak’s pledge likely had more to do with his campaign to out-do Truss in the leadership race than his true position on engagement with China.
“His main rival at the time was Liz Truss, who obviously had a very defined position on this … and so I think the promise was initially made in that context,” he said.
“There is an ideological question … about the approach that that this government is taking towards [China], and the fact that they’re very cautious about upsetting [Beijing], and they’re trying to set a different tone,” Goodman said, citing a planned trip to China later this year by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who gave a speech on April 25 making arguments for ‘constructive engagement’ with Beijing.
Earlier this month, Sunak sent Trade Minister Lord Dominic Johnson to Hong Kong — the first U.K. minister to visit the former British colony since 2018.
“There is clearly a move within Whitehall to try and re-engage China, and also the Hong Kong government and try and reset relations, in spite of the clear opposition from the government’s backbenchers,” Goodman said.
Goodman said Confucius Institute officials have tried to prevent pro-democracy speakers, including Hong Kongers, Uyghurs and Tibetans, from speaking on overseas university campuses.
“They’ve been organizing in a way that goes far beyond the remit of … language institutes,” he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed Truss’ Taiwan trip as “performative.”
“For a British political has-been, using Taiwan to grab attention is all about serving selfish political interests,” Wang told a regular news conference on May 17.
The Chinese Embassy in London described Truss’ Taiwan visit as “a dangerous political show.”