McMaster University is closing the doors on an institute that teaches Chinese culture because of what it believes are its discriminatory hiring practices.
The university is ending its contract in July for the Confucius Institute, a five-year-old office funded by the Chinese government. The closing comes after McMaster investigated the practices used to hire Chinese instructors to work at the institute.
'We had heard from different voices both inside and outside of the university who wanted us to take a look at this.'—Andrea Farquhar, McMaster University
“We were certainly concerned about the hiring decisions that were being made in China,” said Andrea Farquhar, assistant vice-president of public and government relations at McMaster. “The way the university normally functions is incongruent with the way decisions were being made there.”
The Confucius Institute's headquarters in China could not be reached for comment.
The move comes in the midst of an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal challenge by Sonia Zhao, who was hired as an instructor at the McMaster institute in 2010. Zhao says she had to sign a contract ensuring that she would not practise Falun Gong. She left her job in 2011 and filed the human rights challenge in 2012.
Falun Gong is a mainly spiritual movement that began in China in 1992, borrowing partly from Buddhism and Taoism, but also incorporating daily practices and some references to beings from other worlds. It has been attacked by the Chinese government as a cult that engages in "lawbreaking activities."
Zhao's experience wasn't the first incident that raised concerns about the institute's hiring practices, Farquhar said.
“There had been some concerns raised well in advance of that,” she said. “We had heard from different voices both inside and outside of the university who wanted us to take a look at this.”
The university's concerns, Farquhar said, revolved around freedom of expression and choice. McMaster decided to close the institute late last year and went public with the decision this month.
There are 11 Confucius Institutes across Canada. They are non-profit organizations with a stated mission to teach Chinese language and culture. But some people are concerned that the Chinese government uses them to exert Chinese influence in Canada.
'They've been linked to trying to influence Canadian-Chinese policy. They're basically seen as the soft power of the Chinese propaganda campaign.'—Joel Chipkar, Falun Gong Association of Toronto
Among them is Joel Chipkar, vice-president of the Falun Gong Association of Toronto, which is helping with Zhao's case.
“They've been linked to trying to influence Canadian-Chinese policy,” he said. “They're basically seen as the soft power of the Chinese propaganda campaign.”
McMaster's decision is an encouraging one, Chipkar said. He hopes other universities follow suit.
“We think McMaster's stand is a righteous one.”
Confucius Institutes have positive and negative aspects, said Charles Burton, a Brock University political science professor and an expert in China relations.
They provide much-needed instruction in the ways of China, he said. But they are tied to the Chinese government and come with certain beliefs in terms of Falun Gong, Tibet and other issues.
It's not a new concept for governments to exert “soft power” through educational centres, Burton said. Canada has done it, too. Confucius Institutes are unique, however, in that they are part of their host universities.
Chinese instruction is important, and McMaster students need it, he said. In that way, the institutes provide “enormous benefits.”
“My personal preference would be for McMaster to continue instruction in Chinese language and culture and not do it with funding from a foreign government.”
Zhao and McMaster meet with a mediator on Feb. 14. Neither Chipkar or Farquhar could predict the outcome.
From McMaster's perspective, however, the Confucius Institute will be expected to wrap up in July.
“The programs students are taking will all be completed,” she said. “Instructors who are here will finish their time and will return to China. All those plans will go ahead.”