Prominent Uyghur rights campaigner Rushan Abbas claimed that the UCD Confucius Institute is part of a global misinformation campaign, while calling for the closure of the UCD institution.

Rushan Abbas called for the closure of UCD’s Confucius Institute (CI) while giving an address at UCD. She outlined that the government in Beijing is running a global misinformation campaign in an attempt to conceal the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur people and that Confucius Institutes are a part of this global campaign. 

The College Tribune spoke to Abbas about Confucius Institutes and the threat she feels they pose, Abbas claimed that Confucius Institutes are “funded by the Chinese government, as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ‘United Front Work Department’, and are missioned to spread CCP-sanctioned versions of history, propaganda and culture”. 

Uighur activist Rushan Abbas: 'Uighur women are being targeted the most.' Photograph: Colm Keena for The Irish Times
Uighur activist Rushan Abbas: ‘Uighur women are being targeted the most.’ Photograph: Colm Keena for The Irish Times

Abbas further continued saying that CIs “will ensure that the new generation remains in the dark about the harsh truth and heinous crimes being perpetrated by the CCP against the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers”. 

She strongly believes that CIs “disseminate Chinese propaganda narratives and ‘counter-arguments’ to shape opinion under the guise of critical discourse”. Abbas argued that “the closure of CI’s will send an important message to the regime that the international community will not stand by while it whitewashes the Uyghur genocide and human rights abuses and brainwash future generations”. 

The UCD CI is operated jointly by UCD and Renmin University of China which is a CCP-owned institution. Abbas outlined that the “CCP, as is well documented, has indeed engaged in the vile practice of transnational repression. Specifically, the CI encourages students from China to deem me an anti-Chinese propagandist”. 

The Chinese Students Association (CSA) have attempted to have panels led by Abbas cancelled in the past and she believes this to be an “attempt to stifle open discourse”. One such attempt was successful when her panel at Columbia University was cancelled due to pressure from their CI. Although the CSA is an independent student organisation Abbas thinks “it absolutely may face pressures or influence from CIs or the CCP ”. 

Abbas highlighted that “these instances show a need for vigilance in safeguarding academic freedom and ensuring that educational institutions remain spaces for open dialogue and diverse perspectives”. 

A recent UN report claims that the Chinese government may be involved in ‘crimes against humanity’. Despite this stark finding, there are approximately 550 CIs operating globally. 

Abbas explained that “China is an economic powerhouse that has spread its influence in this arena far and wide around the world” and that CI’s “have a nice sounding mission of ‘spreading influence of Chinese culture’”. She believes that “the financial support that accompanies these institutes, including funding for programs and scholarships, is an allure for any university”. These factors combined lead Abbas to feel that the “CIs will inevitably be able to serve their nefarious purposes”.  

UCD’s CI was partly funded by the Irish and Chinese governments who each contributed €3 million, while the balance was paid by UCD itself. A memorandum of agreement between UCD and Hanban, a propaganda wing of the People’s Republic of China, has revealed that the institute will have “exclusive free use” of the building until 2066. If UCD decides to use the building for another purpose before this period expires then they will have to pay Hanban the balance of its contribution at a rate of €60,000 a year. 

Abbas is not alone in her views regarding CIs. The College Tribune spoke with UCD Professor Ben Tonra who has been clear about his disapproval of UCD’s Confucius Institute in the past. 

Professor Tonra explained that “CIs are an instrument of the Chinese State and thereby CCP soft power. It is in my view inappropriate to have such institutions on a university campus and all the more so when such institutions purport to teach Chinese politics to UCD undergraduates”. 

The closure of CIs abroad has begun to increase, namely, the University of Bergen and many CIs in the US have been closed down due to concerns surrounding academic freedom. Professor Tonra agrees with Abbas that UCD should follow suit and close its CI. 

He expressed that the nature, presence and institutional responsibilities of CIs “are inextricably linked to the needs of the Chinese State and the CCP. They exercise a chill factor for both staff and students inappropriate to a university”.

Ellen Clusker – News Editor