Tokyo to probe Beijing-funded cultural centres

Move follows security partners' warnings that institutes may be conduit for propaganda, spying

Japan is set to open a probe into the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in the country, following warnings from its security partners that the purported cultural centres may be a conduit for Chinese propaganda and even espionage.

It is also toughening visa checks on Chinese students and tightening access to sensitive technology for all researchers, especially those involved in Beijing's Thousand Talents Plan to woo scholars.

"There is growing concern among regions that share common values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law - including our ally, the US, and European countries - that the Confucius Institutes should be abolished or required to fully disclose their operations," Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda told the Diet last month, in announcing the formal inquiry.

He was responding to ruling party lawmaker Haruko Arimura, who noted that the Confucius Institutes have been "recognised as a security threat in other countries" as she questioned how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could be allowed to "systematically and strategically" establish the so-called cultural centres in Japan.

There are 14 Confucius Institutes set up in private universities across Japan, including Tokyo's renowned Waseda University and Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University.

These were launched with next to no regulatory oversight. As they do not offer degrees but, rather, courses on Chinese culture and language, they could be set up without government approval.

The inquiry will require the universities hosting Confucius Institutes to provide such details as funding and the sources, student numbers, operational structure and the extent of influence the Confucius Institutes wield over research in areas that China deems sensitive.

The conservative Sankei newspaper had called for a probe in September last year in an editorial.

"The problem is that the Confucian Institutes have become hotbeds for covert political machinations, funded to carry out Beijing's propaganda activities and providing cover for how it conducts influence operations," it said, noting that instructors and teaching materials are all provided by China.

Japan has thus far been wary about acting against unconventional security threats to avoid damaging ties with China, a key business and trading partner.

But experts say that Tokyo is being prodded to do more, amid concerns that it may be the weak link in intelligence or high-tech research exchange in defence partnerships with democracies like the United States, the European Union and Australia.

Tokyo has, in recent months, been increasingly vocal about the China threat.

In April, it explicitly blamed the CCP and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) for cyber attacks against 200 companies and research institutions, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).

The Yomiuri Shimbun cited informed sources in reporting this week that tougher restrictions on technology access will be in place by next year to prevent the theft of sensitive technology that can be adapted for military purposes.

Professor Heng Yee Kuang of the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy said: "Japan's response is part of a growing backlash against Confucius Institutes as an example of Chinese manipulation and interference.

"There are also real concerns over Chinese students in Japan who have been accused of cyber espionage on behalf of the PLA, notably the recent cyber attacks on Jaxa," he told The Straits Times.

Dr Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, told ST that the Confucius Institutes might present a "direct challenge to democracy", and that a gradual decoupling through curbs on personnel exchange is but a natural progression in the ongoing high-tech war.

"The more education exchanges are promoted with China, the more likely sensitive technologies can be revealed, whether knowingly or not, by the free world to the authoritarian regime," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2021, with the headline 'Tokyo to probe Beijing-funded cultural centres'. Subscribe