Confucius Institutes: Cultural exchange or Chinese state propaganda?
21 May 2019
By Tuba Yalinkilic
One of China’s most prominent attempts at educational and cultural soft power has recently encountered considerable difficulties. This article explores both international and domestic responses to the rise of Confucius Institutes as well as their recent fall from grace.
According to their general principles Confucius Institutes must devote themselves to satisfying the demands of people from different countries and regions in the world who learn the Chinese language, to strengthening educational and cultural exchange and cooperation between China and other countries, to deepening friendly relationships with other nations, to promoting the development of multiculturalism, and to construct a harmonious world. As self-declared foreign language schools and educational institutions, Confucius Institutes are administered by the Office of the National Chinese Language International Promotion Leading Group (Hanban) under the Chinese Ministry of Education. Hanban is headquartered in Beijing, with the more than 500 Confucius Institutes in nearly 150 countries constituting its branches. The first Confucius Institutewas opened in Korea in 2004, thereafter Confucius Institutes have spread around the world.
Despite the rapid global expansion of Confucius Institutes, several host countries are becoming increasingly weary of the activities of Confucius Institutes operating within their borders. As such, Sweden’s Stockholm University is the first European institution to close its Confucius Institute. University Vice-Chancellor Astrid Söderbergh Widding suggested that "[g]enerally speaking, establishing institutes that are funded by another nation within the framework of a university is rather a questionable practice". In response, China’s official news agency Xinhua asserted that the President of the University of Stockholm sent a letter to the Hanban headquarters explaining that the closure of the Confucius Institutewas “not related with politics”. Nonetheless, Leiden University, which has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2007, declared that it will not extend its agreement with Hanban after its expiry in August 2019. In a cautious statement the university declared that it “has reached this decision because the Confucius Institute’s activities no longer align with the University’s China strategy and the direction this has taken in recent years. In this strategy, projects that are based on research at Leiden University and its partner institutions in China take priority”.
Across the Atlantic, the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec also decided to shut its Confucius Institute, while the University of British Columbia and University of Manitoba have both rejected Hanban’s offers to host an institute. In the United States Confucius Institute closures spanned Texas A&M University, the Universities of Chicago, Pennsylvania State, Iowa, Rhode Island and Michigan as well as North Carolina State University. Texas A&M University announced that the institutes constitute a “threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda”. Moreover, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report in 2014 urging colleges to close their Confucius Institutes or to renegotiate underlying agreements to ensure academic freedom and control. The AAUP report asserted, "[m]ost agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China. Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate".
Security officials are also increasingly vocal about Confucius Institute activity. In 2010, Richard Fadden from Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) expressed the concern that Confucius Institutesoperate under the control of Chinese embassies and consulates and linked them with regime efforts to influence Canada’s China policy. In 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the US Congress of “concerns” over Confucius Institutes and confirmed that investigations had been launched. Similarly, British lawmaker Fiona Bruce proposed a review of British Universities’ embrace of Confucius Institutes,to assess whether the institutes “represent a threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression, other basic rights, and indeed national security”.
At first sight Confucius Institutesappear designed to emulate the cultural ambassadorship and programming associated with, for example, the British Council, the Goethe Institut, the Cervantes Institute and L’Alliance Franςaise.These entities can themselves be accused of connections to imperial pasts, ongoing geopolitical agendas, and the objectives of soft power. Parallels to the British, German, French and Spanish institutions were highlighted in an interview with an official at a Belgian Confucius Institute: Just like the Goethe Institute stands for Germany and the Cervantes stands for Spain, the Confucius Institute stands for China. Although Goethe and Cervantes lend their names to these institutions, this does not suggest the spread solely of the ideas of Goethe and Cervantes, rather they are names that everyone is familiar with. When we hear the name Goethe, we think of Germany.However, none of these European institutions is typically located on university or college campuses. Instead, they are established in sites where they can fulfil their mandates openly, without threatening the independence and integrity of academic institutions in host countries. Moreover, their connection to their home country’s political agendas tends to be much more transparent.
While many critical comments on China’s Confucius Institute policy are censored on Chinese search engines such as Baidu some domestic bloggers have called for the Chinese government to face up to the problems leading to the closure of Confucius Institutes: How is the funding for the Confucius Institute used? Have the methods of Confucius Institutes improved? Should Confucius Institutes change how they present themselves across the world? In the eyes of many, Confucius Institutes seem torn between their role within the Chinese Communist Party’s (co)overt political agenda and a genuine interest in promoting Chinese language and culture around the world.
The closed Confucius Institutes in Europe and North America are unlikely to be reopened in the near future. Yet, many universities including in Europe and the United States continue to receive significant amounts of funding from China, often posing non-negligible risks to academic freedom and independence. While “[t]hrough Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government is attempting to change the impression in the United States and around the world that China is an economic and security threat”, it seems that China’s attempts to introduce its values through soft power and to destroy the "fear of China" have encountered significant hurdles.
If China intends to continue exercising soft power in international cultural and educational arenas and wishes to preserve the existence of its Confucius Institutes, it should ensure that their operation is made transparent and that their discourse, attitude, teacher assignment and function should focus on genuine cultural and language exchange. Perhaps this new approach should entail remaining outside host countries’ formal education systems.
United States Senate, China’s Impact On The U.S. Education System, Staff Report, Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations, p. 1.