Universities in Western countries are closing Chinese-sponsored centers on campuses.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Helsinki has been in operation for 15 years. Image: Harri Fagerholm/Yle

This week, the University of Helsinki terminated the contract with its on-campus Confucius Institute, a teaching center specializing in Chinese language and culture.

Beijing would have liked to continue funding the program, according to the university’s vice-rector, Hanna Snellman.

“They asked if we would consider negotiating a continuation. We said we wouldn’t,” she explained.

The institute’s agreement with the University of Helsinki expires next January.

Finland is not alone in its decision to leave the Confucius Network. In recent years, dozens of Western universities have closed Confucius Institutes on suspicion that they were part of the Chinese government’s propaganda machine.

Sweden and Denmark have also closed their Confucius Institutes.

“We want to choose our own teachers and employ them ourselves. We also want the teaching of Chinese to be research-based,” Snellman said.

The Chinese Embassy in Finland contacted the university about the closure.

“They would have wanted the institute to continue,” she said.

In practice, the closure of the Confucius Institute means that the University of Helsinki now has to offer its own Chinese courses. Snellman told Yle that the university has already hired two teachers for the position.

“We want to build Chinese skills because there is a greater need than ever,” she explained.

Soft Influence

Specializing in Chinese language and culture, the Confucius Institutes have been criticized as part of Beijing’s push for soft power. These centers have sprung up on some 500 college campuses around the world.

Chinese government-appointed personnel have been suspected of disseminating Chinese state propaganda, attempting to reframe Western perceptions of China.

Two years ago, a report by Yle’s investigative program Spotlight revealed that the Confucius Institute in Helsinki had tried to limit public debate on topics sensitive to China’s ruling Communist Party, such as Tibet.

The Confucius Institute Helsinki was established in 2007. The agreement provided that the University of Helsinki would select and pay the salary of the director of the institute, while the Chinese government would appoint and cover the costs of a director assistant as well as three language teachers.

Information obtained by Yle indicates that the University of Helsinki viewed the role of the deputy director as “non-academic” while the ties with the Chinese Embassy were seen as too close.