China denies reports of professor spying in Belgium

YANAN WANG

BEIJING (AP) — China said Thursday that reports that a professor leading a Beijing-backed language and culture institute in Belgium was involved in spying are untrue.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said some Western media have published "false reports of distortions about the Confucius Institute."

"This is completely untrue and has ulterior motives. We resolutely oppose this behavior that hinders normal exchanges and educational cooperation projects," Geng told reporters at a daily briefing.

Confucius Institutes at universities around the world have come under increasing scrutiny as some accuse them of being tools of Chinese Communist Party propaganda and influence.

The professor in the Belgium case, Song Xinning, told The Associated Press by phone from his home in Beijing that the Brussels immigration office gave him a notice on July 30 stating that his visa would not be renewed because he "supported Chinese intelligence agencies' spying and interference activities in Belgium."

The accusations that he recruited intelligence personnel in the Chinese business and academic community in Belgium were "invented from thin air," Song said.

Song is a professor at Beijing's Renmin University of China who specializes in European studies. For the past three years, he was head of the Confucius Institute at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Song returned to China after his visa expired on July 31.

A spokesman for Belgium's VSSE state security service declined to discuss the case.

Song said he may have been targeted because he was known for organizing "lively" events when he was leading the Confucius Institute, including monthly gatherings and academic dialogues to which people of all nationalities were invited.

In September, Song applied from Beijing for visas to Finland, Austria and Belgium for a work trip. He received a notice from the Belgian immigration bureau saying that he was banned from entering the Schengen Area, which encompasses 26 European states that have abolished passport controls.

Song said reports in Belgian media about his alleged ties to Chinese intelligence and spying were "fabricated," adding that their descriptions of him as a "hard-liner within the Chinese Communist Party," were ironic since he's regarded in China as a liberal.

According to the Confucius Institute website, there are 184 institutes in Europe. The schools are hosted by foreign universities through partnerships with Hanban, an affiliate of China's Ministry of Education. Hanban provides teachers and directors from China, along with textbooks and startup funding.

Officials in the U.S. and Australia have called Confucius Institutes a threat to national security and a tool for Chinese Communist Party interference in other countries.

A total of 26 have closed since 2014, most since mid-2018 and many over concerns about free speech, academic freedom and national security, according to the National Association of Scholars.

Some schools in the U.S. decided to cut ties following the passage of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that forbids universities that host the institutes from receiving Defense Department funding for Chinese language study.