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As the number of Confucius Institutes continues to increase, there have been renewed concerns about how these organisations restrict free expression, particularly from among the international community.
The centres, which are dedicated to Chinese language and culture, education and research, are funded by the Chinese government — just as the UK has its British Council, Germany its Goethe Institut and France its Alliance Française. These European organisations don’t shy away from their purpose: to promote their nation’s culture and win allies. As the British Council states: “Put simply, the British Council exists to build trust between the UK and other countries and people and thereby win lifelong friends for Britain.” So why is it wrong when China tries to do it?
By last August, in just over six years, China had set up over 350 Confucius Institutes and 473 Confucius Classrooms in over 104 different countries, according to the Institute’s website. No small feat, as the British Council, set up in 1934, has only 220 offices in 110 countries and territories.
These organisations, which spread the teaching of Chinese language and culture (including activities as harmless as cooking classes) and provides advice to people looking to do business on the mainland, are overseen by Hanban, ostensibly an NGO but broadly controlled by the Chinese Ministry of Education. In some more prestigious universities the institutes also sponsor research programmes into sinology.
According to a USA Today story last week, some academics have voiced concerns that the money and resources that Confucius Institutes bring in can also help stifle what can be discussed, researched and taught in western universities where the institutes are located.
The article says that in the US, a partnership with a Confucius Institute typically brings in funds “in the range of $100,000 to $150,000”.
It quotes Anne-Marie Brady, associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand as saying that Confucius Institutes will “ always [have] no-go zones, and the no-go zones are obvious: Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong.”
But academics at some American universities that have collaborated with Hanban vehemently deny these claims.
Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University told USA Today: “I said what I always say, which is we don’t restrict the freedom of speech of our faculty, and that was the end of the discussion. I’ve had domestic donors walk away because of that, and in this case Hanban did not walk away.”
Other academics interviewed by the paper also said that having a Confucius Institute on campus had not restricted their freedom to hold talks on Taiwan, Tibet or any other sensitive issue. Yet.
While the western press were busying querying the Confucius Institutes, as reported by The New York Times, Chinese president Hu Jintao was bitterly critical of western culture: “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration”. He also urged the country to put more energy into spreading Chinese culture and ideas, precisely through organs such as the Confucius Institutes.
Hu did not address the issue of just what is Chinese culture. Just 30 years ago under Mao, Confucius was a dirty word and his ideas were vigorously opposed. Today, he is the Communist Party’s golden boy, representing historical greatness, culture, and stability.