Slovak director of a Confucius Institute has been fired after sending threatening emails to local academics
A Slovak academic received several threatening emails from a local Confucius Institute director after his institute released a research paper examining China’s influence on Slovak academic institutions through bilateral interactions. The director of the Confucius Institute later claimed that he was just trying to “joke around” through those threatening emails.
Matej Šimalčík is the executive director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Slovakia and he recently published a research paper with another colleague that maps the academic interaction between Slovak academic institutions and Chinese entities.
According to the paper, while interests in Sino-Slovak cooperation have increased in the academic sector since 2012, there are specific risks in the cooperation with Chinese entities due to the nature of the Chinese regime.
“Cooperation with Chinese entities suffers from a low level of transparency,” wrote the authors in the paper. “Less than half of the concluded cooperation agreements are published in the Central Registry of Contracts. Despite potential technology transfers from publicly funded institutions, current laws do not require Chinese entities (especially corporations) to disclose their beneficial owners, as is the case with other types of relations where publicly funded entities provide valuable consideration to private parties.”
The paper also highlighted the low transparency that exists between the financial flow between Confucius Institutes and Slovak entities. On top of that, academic interactions with Chinese institutions with links to the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese corporations also pose potential risks to the interests of Slovak entities.
Months after the paper was released, Šimalčík received an e-mail from Ľuboslav Štora, the Slovak director of the Confucius Institute Bratislava, which contains threats to his personal safety. “Good morning, are you sleeping well?” Stora wrote in the e-mail seen by the journalist.
“You should be in very big stress, when you are walking through the street. Common you cannot take it seriously … ‘several Chinese corporations that are involved in the surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities in China.’ Who is the donator of these bullshits? Please take us out of the this garbage!!”
After he received the e-mail, Šimalčík said he politely asked Stora to apologize for the “unwarranted comments.” “I also wrote that if he wanted to criticize our research, he can do that in line with academic ethics,” he said. “I said we won’t be standing there to receive such threats.”
Stora then responded with another e-mail, saying “Be Patient, Big Brother is watching you.” After Šimalčík reveals the threats to Slovak media outlets, Stora said the reason why he sent those emails was that he thought the claims about China developing facial recognition technology and applying it widely to Uyghurs in Xinjiang is “nonsense.”
Stora claimed that he has “never heard of” facial recognition technologies being widely used in Xinjiang and other provinces in China. He said he viewed the findings in Šimalčík’s research paper as “a joke” so he used a “joking way” to respond. He said he had apologized to Šimalčík and emphasized that he was just trying to use an “absurd reaction” to highlight the “absurd” points made by Šimalčík in his research paper.
When Stora was told that facial recognition technologies have been widely used across China to identify those who violate traffic regulations, he claimed that he really didn’t know about these facts before.
“Confucius Institutes are willing to promote Chinese interests”
However, to Šimalčík, the incident reflects some risks that Chinese entities like the Confucius Institutes can bring to Slovak academic institutions. “I think the key lesson learned here is that while Confucius Institutes’ public activities may seem quite alright to an outside observer, we see that they are willing to promote Chinese interests and using that to enforce self-censorship on topics that are deemed critical in their eyes.”
“It’s probably a good time for all the institutions cooperating with Confucius institutes to re-evaluate their ties and do some audit about how they impact academic freedom. This particular Confucius institute also cooperates with several other universities. It offers language courses and language classes at high schools.”
Šimalčík also pointed out that Confucius Institutes are currently the only provider of education about China in Slovakia, and there is a potential that they could influence the curricula of those courses by not reflecting the problematic aspects of China.
“Even the only department of sinology in Slovakia, to some large extent, is dependent on cooperation with the Confucius Institutes for providing language education,” Šimalčík said.
After the incident went public, Stora admitted that he has been fired by his employer, even though he refused to acknowledge which employer he was referring to.
This piece was adapted from an article first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website. Additional interviews have been added to the English version.