Controversy Continues over Confucius Institutes

Beijing’s Confucius Institute, a program to aid in spreading Chinese soft-power to the world via language and cultural education, has generated much controversy since its beginnings in 2004. While government sponsored efforts to bolster national image through the global promotion of language and culture are not unique to China (see France’s Alliances Françaises, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, or Germany’s Goethe-Institut), their presence within established universities and exercise of control on class curriculum is. The mainstream media has been paying close attention to this controversy over the past month, after the US State Department complicated visa extension for CI teachers. In May, China Realtime Report’s Josh Chin briefly summed up the controversy as follows:

Criticized by some as propaganda vehicles, in part because they limit discussion of politically sensitive topics like Tibet and the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors, the institutes are nevertheless popular with cash-strapped U.S. universities eager to take advantage of the subsidized language instruction.

The US isn’t the only country where worry over CI’s operations can be found. The Guardian’s Tania Branigan covered Liu Xiaoming, Chinese ambassador to the UK, responding to academic critiques of the institute in Britain:

“Some people are not comfortable to see the rapid growth of Confucius Institutes. They cling to the outdated ‘cold war’ mentality,” Liu Xiaoming said at a recent Edinburgh gathering for the European branches. “They criticise Confucius Institutes for being a tool of China’s ‘national propaganda’. They label teaching Mandarin as ‘ideological infiltration.’ So they have from time to time made irresponsible remarks in western media.”

[…]Liu’s remarks came after Professor Christopher Hughes, a China expert at the London School of Economics, raised concerns about hosting such centres in the wake of  last year’s scandal over the LSE’s dealings with the Gaddafi regime.

Hughes said it was “gross interference” for Liu to complain about an internal discussion on ethics at the LSE. “He has insulted me and misrepresented my views by saying that I ‘have a cold war mentality’ for raising important ethical issues and merely repeating what Chinese leaders have said about the Confucius Institutes,” he said.

Today’s edition of Canada’s Globe and Mail picked up the story of Sonia Zhao, once a teacher at McMaster University’s CI. Zhao, a Falun Gong practitioner whose mother suffered in China’s crackdown on the organization, quit her post and sought political asylum in Canada, unwilling to adhere to Beijing’s restrictions on classroom conduct. Zhao’s story, covered last summer in the Falun Gong-connected Epoch Times, has prompted the administration at McMaster to put pressure on Beijing to change its operating procedure:

“If my students asked me about Tibet or about other sensitive topics, I should have the right to talk about them, to express my opinion – but [I wasn’t] allowed to say that freely,” Ms. Zhao said in an interview. “During the training in Beijing, they do tell us: Don’t talk about this. If the student insists, you just try to change the topic, or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer.”

Andrea Farquhar, McMaster’s assistant vice-president of public and government affairs, says the university is “looking for clarity” from its Chinese partners on aspects of their agreement, notably hiring practices, and is “raising the concerns that we had, and that had been brought forward to us, and looking to find some solutions to that.”

[…]Having lent its name to the Confucius Institute on its campus, McMaster says it is insisting that Canadian laws and expectations be respected. Partners in China have shown a willingness to consider adjusting the “screening process,” Ms. Farquhar said, and the future of the institute may hinge on exactly how it proposes to do so. “The other part of the dialogue we were having was that if we can’t get a resolution to this, that being able to continue on with the kind of agreement that we have at the moment would be difficult.”

In light of a bounty of critical English-language press, Global Times has been publishing more cheerful pieces, praising CI efforts. See “Confucius Institute in Britain promotes better understanding about China,” or this more recent article profiling a CI at the University of Hawaii:
Confucius Institutes (CIs) and Confucius Classrooms (CCs) have mushroomed in the US since the establishment of the first CI at the University of Maryland in 2004. Currently there are 81 CIs and more than 300 CCs in the US. The Confucius Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (CI-UHM) was established in 2006. Since its establishment, the CI-UHM has contributed greatly to the US, both educationally and economically, via academic activities and cultural exchanges.The CI-UHM has fostered mutual understanding and friendship between China and the US. To date, the CI-UHM’s partner university, Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) has sent 13 co-directors, teachers and volunteers to take up terms of one to two years at the CI-UHM. All have been warmly welcomed by the university, the local schools, and the community. Through their interactions with the Americans, both sides have learned much more about each other, and have forged friendly relations in the process.The CI-UHM has helped with the teaching of foreign languages in Hawaii in general and of Chinese in particular, mainly in two ways.[…]

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions another cause for concern: CIs sometimes target children with cultural activities organized from their offices in institutes of higher education. The CI homepage’s “Chinese for Kids” section releases a series of  “中国历史尝试“ [Common Knowledge about Chinese History] cartoons, depicting often politically-charged historical events from a CCP perspective (see The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea [link deleted from the website, but found thanks to a tweet from @prchovanec]).

Since 2004, the Chinese government has spent at least $500 million establishing CIs, a point not lost on Chinese nationals, as illustrated by commentary and cartoons circulating China’s blogosphere and translated by CDT. See also “Is China Squandering its Soft Power Investments” via CDT.


“Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?”

– Confucius, The Analects, Book 1


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