- Vrije Universiteit Brussel says cooperating with the institute is no longer consistent with its policies
- Security services had accused Song Xinning, former head of the institute at the university, of being a recruiter for Chinese intelligence
One of Belgium's leading universities has decided to close the Chinese state-funded Confucius Institute on its campus, following accusations that the former head professor conducted espionage for China.
Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) confirmed that it would not extend its contract with the institute when the agreement expires next June, although it did not refer to the espionage claims.
The university said cooperation with Confucius Institute " whose stated aims include promoting Chinese language and culture and facilitating cultural exchanges " was "not in line with (our) principles of free research", based on the information it had obtained.
"The university is of the opinion that cooperating with the institution is no longer consistent with its policies and objectives," it said in a statement on its website.
In October, Belgian security services accused Song Xinning, former head of the Confucius Institute at VUB, of working as a recruiter for Chinese intelligence.
The Belgian newspaper De Morgen reported that VUB had ignored a warning from the state security service about the institute's activities.
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Song was subsequently barred from entering the Schengen Area " comprising 26 European countries " for eight years.
In an earlier interview with the South China Morning Post, Song said Belgian immigration authorities had informed him on July 30 that his visa would not be renewed, because he "supported Chinese intelligence activities".
Song said the decision had followed his refusal to cooperate with a US diplomat based in Brussels. He denied sharing contact and work information with the Chinese authorities, or receiving help from them after his travel ban became public.
Jonathan Holslag, an international relations professor at VUB and one of the most vocal critics of VUB's Confucius Institute, called the university's decision "brave".
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"This should stand as an example for many European universities," he said. "It is also in the interest of Chinese students, because they are the main victims of the politicisation of academic exchanges and the suspicion that elicits."
Confucius Institutes, which are overseen by China's Ministry of Education, have been set up in more than 480 higher education institutions around the world. Over the past decade, they have come under increased scrutiny from Western governments over allegations that they have links to espionage activities.
Several of the institutes in the United States and Australia have been forced to close because of allegations that they had undue influence on campus, while several Chinese academics and researchers have been investigated, dismissed and even arrested in the US on suspicion of stealing intellectual property or failing to disclose funding ties with Chinese universities.
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In Europe, the Confucius Institutes at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, Stockholm University in Sweden and University Lyon in France have all been closed.
China has previously said it would optimise the spread of the institute, strengthening its abilities and raising its education standards. It has also said it would improve educational opportunities for students from countries involved in its transcontinental infrastructure strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative.
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