Education Minister Rob Fleming says he's concerned about a controversial Chinese language program operating in Coquitlam, but he’s leaving it to the school district to reconsider the arrangement.
However, what does have Fleming’s more immediate “attention” is an interaction between school superintendent Patricia Gartland and a filmmaker documenting the district's Confucius Institute – the last remaining one in the province. Confucius Institutes are controversial given their ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Last month, journalist and film director Doris Liu premiered In the Name of Confucius in B.C., including a screening at Coquitlam Public Library hosted by pro-democracy group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong.
The film is a critical look at the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language school operated across the world by Hanban, a Chinese government-sanctioned organization.
Fleming was asked by Glacier Media March 12 if he was supportive of a Confucius Institute operating in Coquitlam.
“I wouldn’t say so. I would think that the district should probably examine if they want to continue that relationship. I know that BCIT thought better of it. But to tell you the truth, in fairness, I have not had a discussion with trustees or the administration.”
Asked if it is up to the district to decide whether to keep or terminate its Hanban contract, Fleming said, “It is, but I think they are aware of some of the pros and cons of having an association, for sure.
“I’ll let them raise the issue with me,” said Fleming, adding he’d expect such a discussion the next time he meets with Gartland and district staff.
However, Gartland’s interview with Liu does not indicate she was aware of the implications of her district taking millions of dollars worth of educational materials from Hanban and, by extension, the Chinese government.
Liu asked Gartland if she had any concerns about China’s poor human rights record.
“We never had any concerns of any kind, and I don’t understand why there would be any controversy. I think it's xenophobia,” Gartland told Liu.
Liu asked if the district should accept money from governments that do not respect human rights.
“Well, I don’t agree with what you’ve just said. We can receive grants from any source and if we receive it from the government of China, we are proud to do so.”
Liu told Gartland how other institutions had shut down their Confucius Institutes, and when Gartland was pressed about the institute’s alleged discriminatory hiring practices (against Falun Gong practitioners), she ended the interview.
Gartland then attempted to physically take Liu’s interview consent form.
“Excuse me, I cannot do that,” Liu told Gartland in front of cameras.
“Yes, you can,” asserted Gartland as she reached for Liu’s binder.
Liu scooped up her papers, and the district’s marketing manager Bob Lajoie then escorted Liu and her crew out of the school.
“It has my attention,” said Fleming, who grimaced when shown the video by Glacier Media at an unrelated announcement in Surrey. Fleming said he’d need to understand more of the situation to comment further.
The Ministry of Education later confirmed that it views allowing the Confucius Institute in B.C. schools as a decision best fit for individual districts. Fleming has not responded to follow-up questions. Gartland declined to speak to Glacier Media about her interview with Liu.
About five years have passed since the incident - enough time for many North American institutions, particularly in America, to close their Confucius Institutes citing discriminatory hiring practices and the schools being used for Chinese Communist Party propaganda purposes.
“I came to this country because I wanted freedom and democracy and all those good things the Chinese don’t have. But now we have Confucius Institutes, we have people here in Canada wanting to accept that and embrace the money without thinking of what kind of price will be compromised,” Liu told her Coquitlam audience of about 100 people on February 13.
Liu told her audience she doesn’t think it is right that those taking money from the Confucius Institute decline to answer questions about politics and human rights.
Liu also noted how one university asked to pre-screen interview content for her film. When she rejected this, her second-day interviews were cancelled.
“That was a visible example of how far our higher educators could go when they have a Confucius Institute and a close relationship with the Chinese communist government.”
A 2012 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) conference paper titled The Security Dimensions of an Influential China highlights a consensus position on the Confucius Institute by academics.
“Chinese leaders describe it as an organisation for spreading propaganda and building soft power,” the paper claims.
Western education institutions must properly assess the risks posed by the Confucius Institute, it states.
“This reputational risk is compounded by the perception that CIs (Confucius Institutes) do not allow critical discussion of topics that the Chinese government deems sensitive, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan or the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.”
In addition to immediate perceived cyber-security threats, there are concerns the institute “may distort the long-term development of Chinese studies” in favour of the Chinese Communist Party.
“There are serious political implications of the CIs taking over the role of teacher training and curriculum design that are normally steered by academics trained in native universities,” the paper states.
Last year the U.S. abandoned federal funding for Chinese studies at universities that continue to operate a Confucius Institute.
Money is a significant factor for institutions, including the Coquitlam School District (School District 43) to operate a Confucius Institute.
Since 2014, the Tri-City News has reported extensively on how Gartland has transformed the district into a money-making entity utilizing the Confucius Institute and international students, mostly from China.
Students pay $200 in fees for books and tuition, with the Chinese government, through Hanban, contributing grants for supplies, a Chinese writing and public speaking contest and performances.
In 2018, the district received US$246,000 in grants and applied for US$260,000 in grants in 2019.
The district claims it maintains autonomy from the Chinese government in the hiring of 40 teachers, who have university degrees and certification in teaching Chinese, and are either permanent residents or Canadian citizens.
School District 43’s international program is the largest and most financially lucrative in the province, and provides significant revenue - roughly $35 million a year - including summer school for foreign students. In addition to hiring teachers, the program pays schools hosting students grants for cultural programs, which this year cost $650,000.
The international student program may well have plateaued at 1,850 students this school year, down from 2,000 last year, with families paying $16,500 for their children to go to school here, not including activity fees.
Gartland spent $73,172 - and more than a month out of the country - on travel in the last school year, much of it to promote the district’s international education program. That included two trips to China and one to France.
Chinese legal expert and political observer Clive Ansley appeared in Liu’s film, stating, “Many universities in Canada and increasingly even high schools are dependent on Chinese money to continue educating Canadians.”
- With files from Diane Strandberg, Tri City News