DENG Xiaoping was the ‘supreme leader’ of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1978 to 1989. He led the country through a series of reforms that were the catalyst for its massive industrialisation, earning him the epithet ‘Architect of Modern China’. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.’ His words have become synonymous with Chinese pragmatism in all global matters.
One of China’s biggest successes has been its establishment of an international network of ‘cultural and language centres’ at major colleges and universities. They are named after the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC), who is synonymous with morality, justice and honesty. Some of the morals Confucius taught are easily recognisable to modern Judeo-Christians – most notably his version of the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself’.
The first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul, South Korea, in 2004 after a ‘successful pilot’ in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. By 2020 there were 543 across 162 countries, including 85 in the USA and 30 in the UK. The USA also permitted some 500 ‘Confucius Classrooms’, primarily in public schools.
Confucius Institutes are fully funded, controlled and staffed by Hanban, a department of the Communist Chinese Ministry of Education. Hanban also supply host universities with a Chinese director, teachers trained by the Chinese regime, and all teaching materials. Teachers are instructed not to discuss topics such as human rights, Tibet or Taiwan with students, and mandated to promote positive images of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Many of Hanban’s partnership arrangements with universities, colleges and schools are confidential and difficult to access or scrutinise. One curious fact is that the Chinese staff involved in the Confucius Institutes seem exempt from background checks, in the same manner as diplomats: an extraordinary abdication of national security obligations.
CCP control of the institutes is well known and has raised many concerns. Critics point to incidences of academic freedoms being undermined, to fears that Confucius staff may be monitoring the activity of Chinese students abroad and to the institutes’ role as a sophisticated propaganda apparatus for Beijing. Worse is the ever-present suspicion that they might be centres for industrial and military espionage.
In 2016, the Sinosceptic Donald Trump was elected US President and in April 2017, the American National Association of Scholars (NAS) released Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. (Soft Power is a term coined by Joseph S Nye in 1990 to describe a nation’s ability to control the actions of others without force or coercion.) The NAS report was critical of how easily the Chinese government was able to infiltrate higher education to enhance its own image. The investigation led to an increased focus on the institutes’ exercise of Soft Power, especially with the young.
Growing numbers of countries are now rethinking their relationships with the institutes, including Australia and New Zealand: at least 27 universities and one school board in the USA have requested closure. Those that have already gone include the centres on the campuses of Stockholm University, Copenhagen Business School, Stuttgart Media University, the University of Lyon, the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania University, the University of Michigan, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and the Toronto School Board. There is no record of any such closure in the UK.
As of March 25, 2021, according to the NAS, the number of Confucius Institutes in the USA had fallen to 50, with another eight scheduled to close this year. Several others, including some in public schools, are under review and a few Confucius Institute websites are deactivated.
Some observers argue that the closures are nothing more than xenophobia, a symptom of increased anti-China sentiment, and that they deny often poorer students access to legitimate language education. In the UK, Confucius defenders have made comparison between the activities of the Institutes and those of the British Council in China.
The Chinese regime has reacted to criticisms by ‘bringing in a new cat’, rebranding and repositioning the Confucius Institutes under a new ‘non-governmental foundation’, the Chinese International Education Foundation.
The move, it says, will ‘better facilitate Chinese language teaching overseas’ and ‘disperse Western misinterpretation that the institutes serve as China’s international ideological marketing machine’.
In the UK, Goldsmiths, University of London, which has a relatively large institute, has advised students that the Chinese have agreed to continue to provide the ‘teaching, personnel resources and operational funding necessary to ensure that the support for and investment in the Confucius Institutes remains undiminished’. They have expressed no difficulty with the source of the money.
In the US, the sentiment is different. A group of Republican senators are pushing legislation aimed at blunting the CCP’s ideological impact by mandating greater transparency and public accountability.
In December 2020, Senator Marsha Blackburn introduced the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act in Congress to force host universities to publish their contracts with Hanban or lose their federal funding. She said that countries can no longer permit their students to be ‘brainwashed by revisionist history’ peddled by the CCP through Confucius Institutes.
Back in the UK, despite evidence published by the Foreign Affairs Committee in late 2019 of ‘alarming’ growth in Chinese influence on university campuses, no action has been forthcoming from the Minister of State for Universities Michelle Donelan, or indeed from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
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