The Confucius Institute is a global project to promote Chinese language and culture administered by Hanban, an “NGO” directly affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education. Confucius Institutes and classrooms operate within institutions of higher education around the world, and when a school outside of China decides to set one up, they are usually offered funding and visiting faculty from the PRC. Below is a brief description of the institution from Hanban’s webpage “About Confucius Institutes”:
As China’s economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth, there has also been a sharp increase in the world’s demands for Chinese learning. Benefiting from the UK, France, Germany and Spain’s experience in promoting their national languages, China began its own exploration through establishing non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries in 2004: these were given the name the Confucius Institute.
Over recent years, the Confucius Institutes’ development has been sharp and they have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world and are much welcomed across the globe.
A China Daily article from last month affirms the Chinese government’s support of the Confucius Institute:
A senior Chinese official said Monday that China will continue to support the building of Confucius Institute to further promote cultural exchanges.
While addressing the opening ceremony of the sixth conference of Confucius Institutes in Beijing, State Councilor Liu Yandong said Confucius Institutes have helped bring the Chinese language to the world and introduce foreign languages into China.
The Chinese government will continue to support the construction of Confucius Institute and give full play to its role in promoting cultural exchanges, said Liu, also president at the Confucius Institute Headquarters council.
According to Hanban, there are currently over 350 Confucius Institutes and 473 Confucius Classrooms operating in over 104 different countries. Despite its portrayal as an institution with strictly educational goals, much global controversy has been expressed regarding the soft power objectives of this institution. An article from Inside Higher Ed thoroughly outlines this controversy:
The infusion of Chinese government funding into international universities has enabled significant expansions in language teaching, cultural programming, and China-related conferences and symposia, but it has also raised fears regarding academic freedom and independence of teaching and research. Critics have questioned why colleges would provide their imprimatur to institutes that have been described by Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.”
“If we had a U.S. government agency that was stating that it was a tool for U.S. government propaganda, my colleagues would be up in arms about having a center like that on campus,” said Anne-Marie Brady, associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. Brady, the editor of the recent volume, China’s Thought Management (Routledge, 2011), said the space for criticism and inquiry at overseas Confucius Institutes is similar to that which Chinese citizens navigate: “They’ve got a lot of space, but the same kind of space that people have in China, which is that there are always no-go zones, and the no-go zones are obvious: Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong. And academia does not have no-go zones.”
“We’ve not ever had the experience of anybody telling us, ‘Oh, don’t talk about that,’ or, ‘This is a sensitive topic, avoid that,’ and our position all along has been the minute that anybody does, we’re done,” said Ken Hammond, a professor of history and co-director of the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State University – which has hosted speakers who have addressed such topics as the history of Tibet and the Nationalist evacuation to Taiwan in 1949. “I wouldn’t carry on a program where those constraints were placed upon me. That’s not what I do. That’s not why I got into this.”
Much as we have seen in other recent stories related to international education and China, such as the recruitment of Chinese international students by US universities, the Inside Higher Ed article describes the financial incentive that may contribute to the spread of the Confucius Institute:
The influx of Confucius Institute dollars comes at a time when U.S. government funding, specifically National Resource Center funding for area and language studies, has been slashed by 47 percent. Paul Jacov Smith, a professor of history and East Asian studies at Haverford College, said he worries that some of the fears surrounding the Confucius Institutes mask frustrations about the U.S.’s own disinvestment in language and culture study. “While I do worry about the strings that often seem attached to CI funding, I think some of the more general concern is generated by the frustration that we in the U.S. feel as our ability to fund our own academic projects is eroded by the economic downturn,” he said. “Our national power and prestige are under pressure right now, and I worry that could fuel unproductive resentments against China.“