THIS column is hardly averse to world-leading Scottish statistics of a cultural and educational kind. But the news that Scotland has the greatest number of Confucius Institutes per capita in the world occasions more than a pause.

We know this because Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to China this week brought news of a Scottish Government scheme to increase the numbers of Scottish learners of Mandarin, who will spend a year in China itself. Confucius Institutes manage such language programmes.

But they are also more widely regarded as the front line of China’s charm-offensive against an often sceptical world. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt and Strathclyde universities all have their CI’s, partly subsidised by organisations tightly aligned with the Chinese state.

I have two interests here. One is whether these institutes are indeed mere propaganda arms. But secondly, a deeper question – which is how Scots might better understand Chinese civilisation, as we watch its rise to dominate the rest of the 21st century.

There are enough charges around that can be brought against existing Confucius Institutes. We can ask a very direct question of our Scottish institutions that is often levelled at their operations in the US, Europe and Australia (many of which are being shut down). Have any of our host institutions ever signed a memorandum of understanding to support the one-China policy, with regards to Taiwan? Are there implicit rules on off-limit topics – like Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square, and Falun Gong? Answers, please.

In the meantime, I had a look at Glasgow University’s Scottish Centre for China Research, which sits under the Confucius Institute umbrella. In the events list, I found one seminar from February 15, 2015, which described China’s asymmetrical relations to Tibet as being about “naming, transforming, domesticating and even destroying the peoples being minoritised”.

Much of the rest concerns topics such as the conditions of Chinese workers, environmental protest, and much analysis of China’s official industrial plans. But certainly nothing else from the off-topic list. The list of publications on the site is worse – there’s nothing untoward explored here at all, most of it oriented to policy problem-solving for various Chinese development strategies.

There is more reportage to be done here. But if the Glasgow sample is representative, CI’s are mostly about applying social-science scholarship to the challenges of Chinese development.

This would fit with an overall Scottish Government agenda of seeking to be useful and connected to a world superpower. However, the Chinese state’s various persecutions and oppressions don’t seem to be in the picture.

Did Sturgeon’s “forthright” but private talk on human rights with the Chinese vice-premier bring up the off-topics? We might hope so. But we have to take it on trust.

I’m as vigilant about the behaviour of authoritarian regimes as any Scottish democrat. But here’s the thing: I also want to open up a front in my sensibilities which doesn’t reduce the vast complexity and richness of Chinese civilisation to the stated agendas of the Chinese Communist Party.

In that respect, I have some key questions. How important is it to Scotland’s future that we understand and respect the deep cultural, philosophical and religious traditions that sit beneath the surface of contemporary China?

When we critique their behaviour and policies as “authoritarian” or “repressive”, where does our discourse of human rights end, and their perhaps different conception of the “human” itself begin?

If we point to contemporary Chinese elites as suppressing the voice of their people, how do we assess their millennia-long traditions of mandarin rule?

I was turned on to the salience of these questions while reviewing Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct. This is a magisterial “cognitive history”, in the style of Jared Diamond, which tries to map out the major world views that have developed, and persist, on this humanised planet.

The philosopher Confucius, and his various -isms, play a huge role here – and explain much of what Westerners might find inexplicable about Chinese society.

The West is a dualistic culture, stemming from Greek classical times. We divide body and heart from head and soul – the former being where emotion lives, the latter where reason lives.

Confucian thinking identifies, instead, the “heart-mind” as the place where cognition lies. And reality is seen “within an organic view of the universe, looking for how each part harmonizes within the entire system”, writes Lent.

“With their belief that life’s meaning arose from its context, the defining characteristic of humanity for the Chinese was their existence within a social nexus,” continues Lent. “In contrast to the Greek view of reason as the faculty unique to human beings, the Chinese saw morality as what differentiated humans from other animals.”

Indeed, if the human condition at its best “integrates reason with emotions and intuition”, continues Lent, then “the unlimited pursuit of knowledge becomes positively dangerous”.

Muse on this pattern of meaning for a bit, and much of the underlying feel of Chinese life becomes clearer. For one thing, take the endless adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party. Doesn’t this become an illustration of the deep Confucian search for social balance and harmony?

Also consider their soft-propaganda programmes (which the Confucius Institutes are undoubtedly part of), and tight media control. Is this as much an expression of a desire for integration, as it is sheer suppression of viewpoints?

Or take China’s forthcoming Social Credit System. It’s often rendered as a surveillance network beyond the nightmares of George Orwell – monitoring the data generated by Chinese citizens, and granting (or removing) social benefits according to their daily performance.

Yet as The Conversation’s Meg Jing Zeng notes, the concept of “credit” – xinyong – is “a core tenet of traditional Confucian ethics, which can be traced back to the late 4th century BC. In its original context, xinyong is a moral concept that indicates one’s honesty and trustworthiness”.

Another moment’s reflection can unmount us from our high horses here. What is the “computer-says-no” behaviour of our own credit and rating systems, other than a trust rating?

We vaunt our Western standards of transparency and autonomy. But how easily have they been subverted by our own business algorithms? One might at least grant the Chinese some cultural consistency here.

All of which is to say that Scots could, and should, be having rich and full conversations with the Chinese among us, and the Chinese we face in the wider world. These must extend beyond the latest technology or business deal, into areas of what a good and supportive human society might look like – and the differences/overlaps of our visions here.

Are Confucius Institutes the best enablers of this conversation? I’m not that sure, to be honest. But such exchanges must happen. It’ll be a long, mutually confused century for us if they don’t.

The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent, is on Prometheus Books