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Helsinki University closes China-funded Confucius Institute

Universities across western countries are shutting down China-sponsored centres on campuses.

The Confucius Institute at Helsinki University has been operating for 15 years. Image: Harri Fagerholm / Yle

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

Beijing would have liked to continue funding the programme, 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 deal with the University of Helsinki lapses next January.

Finland is not alone in its decision to leave the Confucius network. In recent years dozens of western universities have shuttered Confucius Institutes on suspicions that they are an arm of the Chinese government's propaganda machinery.

Sweden and Denmark have also closed their Confucius Institutes.

"We want to choose our own teachers and employ them ourselves. We also want Chinese language instruction to be research-based," Snellman said.

The Chinese embassy in Finland contacted the university regarding the closure.

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

In practice, closing the Confucius Institute means Helsinki University must now provide its own Chinese-language courses. Snellman told Yle the university had already hired two teachers for the job.

"We want to strengthen Chinese language skills as there's a bigger need than ever before," she explained.

Soft influence

Specialised in Chinese language and culture, Confucius Institutes have been criticised as a part of Beijing's soft power push. These centres have cropped up on some 500 university campuses across the globe.

Staff appointed by the Chinese government have been suspected of disseminating Chinese state propaganda, attempting to reframe western perceptions about China.

Two years ago a report by Yle investigative show Spotlight found that Helsinki's Confucius Institute tried to limit public discussion of topics sensitive to China's ruling Communist Party, such as Tibet.

Helsinki's Confucius Institute was established in 2007. The agreement called for Helsinki University selecting and paying the salary of the institute's director, whereas the Chinese government would appoint and cover the costs of a deputy director as well as three language teachers.

Information obtained by Yle indicates that Helsinki University found the role of the deputy director to be "unacademic" while ties to the Chinese embassy were perceived as being too close.