Confucius Institutes, launched by the Chinese government in 2004, usually come with generous donations to the hosting academic institution. [IVANWALSH.com / Flickr]
McMaster University is severing ties with an institute that teaches Chinese language and culture, because of concerns about possible human rights violations and discriminatory hiring practices.
The Confucius Institute will close its doors on campus at the end of July when its five-year contract with McMaster expires.
Confucius Institutes worldwide are run by the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, a non-government agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. The institute at McMaster — like the hundreds around the world that operate out of established post-secondary and secondary institutions — is staffed by instructors hired in China.
The decision by McMaster comes after an instructor quit her post in 2011, sought refugee status in Canada and filed an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal challenge against the university alleging her employment contract barred her from freely expressing her political or religious beliefs.
Sonia Zhao charges that her contract with the Chinese institute expressly bans her from practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline outlawed in China. She accuses McMaster of “legitimizing” a discriminatory job contract and is currently participating in mediation with university officials in efforts to settle the dispute.
Regardless of the outcome, McMaster has announced that the issues brought forward were enough to justify ending the relationship with the institute.
“Concerns were raised that the hiring decisions in China did not reflect the normal hiring practices of the university. Numerous discussions were held with (Confucius) officials to consider possible solutions but a satisfactory resolution could not be found,” the university posted in its daily news Feb. 7.
“It is heartening to see McMaster end its relationship with the Confucius Institute,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “In order to maintain academic integrity, universities must remain free of prescribing doctrine or imposing religious belief.”
Confucius Institutes have stirred controversy both in and outside of China over ties with the Chinese Ministry of Education, fuelling speculation about the possibility of industrial espionage and an agenda to advance China’s soft power and cultural influence internationally.
Confucius Institutes are in place at several universities in Canada and also operate in many public secondary school settings.
The possibility that the University of Manitoba is looking into bringing the Chinese institute to its Winnipeg campus is an ongoing concern for the University of Manitoba Faculty Association.
In light of the human rights complaint and McMaster’s decision to sever ties with the institute, UMFA says it’s seeking a clear response from administrators on the issue.
“This is a good opportunity for faculty and students to inquire into third-party partnerships on their campuses to ensure they are operating with high standards of integrity,” agreed Turk.