The Hanban Website indicates that there are currently 541 Confucius Institutes (CI) operating in several countries. The most rapid expansion, however, took place within the first six years (2004-2010) when Hanban established 322 Confucius Institutes (CIs) and 369 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) in 96 countries.
Interestingly, the USA is the leading country with 81 CIs while the UK is the second one with only 30. This unprecedented growth has raised the eyebrows of several academicians, law-makers, and activists as to what extent China would go to exert its soft-power in the world.
Headquartered in Beijing under the direct financial and managerial supervision of one of China's most important government bureaus, the Ministry of Education, the Office of the Chinese Language Council International, known colloquially as Hanban, operates Confucius Institutes all over the world.
However, a misguided perception suggests that CIs are very similar to the well-known European language and cultural organisations, such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise, etc.
The Hanban Website is intentionally promoting this perception as it states that “benefiting from the UK, France, Germany and Spain’s experience in promoting their national languages, China began its exploration by establishing non-profit public institutions that aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries.”
This narrative is misleading and tends to give CI its unearned credibility. Thus, this paper aims to dispel this misconception and highlight current controversies associated with CIs.
Although Hanban likes to compare Confucius Institutes to European language and culture organisations, such as the Alliance Française and the Goethe‐Institut, CIs are fundamentally different in significant ways. For example, unlike the European counterparts, CIs are not only stand-alone but are also strictly under the Ministry of Education's supervision and direction.
CIs deliberately seek and explore to associate with prestigious institutions in host countries for garnering prestige and credibility to CIs. Another feature of CIs is that they are housed within existing schools and universities that provide the classroom facilities, housing for teachers, and support staff. The curriculum, language teachers, and funding are determined and set under the Ministry of Education's guidance and approval.
The language teachers are screened and selected for assigning to different CI sites under the supervision of a director. Hanban has shown a great deal of eagerness and excitement to establish partnerships with host country institutes but has not matched their willingness with similar zeal to allow host country programs in China. To this end, the US has criticised Hanban’s lack of reciprocity.
The Constitution and By-laws of CI stipulate that permission or authorisation from the Hanban Headquarter is required before any activity is conducted under the CI's name. This condition leaves no programming flexibility for host institutes.
Should they deviate from this obligation, they are likely to forfeit CI’s financial support. The three “T-Words,” Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen, is one of the conditions and cannot be discussed at these institutes, in clear violation of academic freedom and free speech.
Such intentional exclusion of three Ts in the curriculum denies participants access to multiple perspectives and is, thus, tantamount to ideological indoctrination.
Stifling Academic Freedom
On a global scale, the widespread network of Confucius Institutes has witnessed an equally ubiquitous resistance and challenge to their role and function in different host countries. In recent years, CIs have come under scrutiny as they are viewed as massive “soft power” campaigns to influence global discourse about China and stifle academic freedom to protect China's image from being tarnished within the international context.
According to political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability to “get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” by relying upon the “attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies.”
The University of Maryland, College Park, USA, is the first to launch its Confucius Institute on 15 June 2004, in the US. To date, 81 Confucius Institutes are operating in the US, including 13 Confucius Institutes at K-12 public school districts.
On the other hand, India has only three Confucius Institutes, located at the University of Mumbai, Vellore Institute of Technology, and Lovely Professional University. In recent months, these Institutes have come under the scrutiny of the Government of India. They are likely to be shut down as they stifle the much-venerated academic freedom and critical thinking at host campuses.
In an article entitled, “China’s propaganda centres on campuses must be shut down,” Lindsay (2020) quotes Professor Jonathan Lipman of Mount Holyoke College, who explains, “by peddling a product we want, namely Chinese language study, the Confucius Institutes bring the Chinese government into the American Academy in powerful ways. The general pattern is very clear. They can say, 'We'll give you this money, you'll have a Chinese program, and nobody will talk about Tibet.”
Lindsay also quoted FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, who corroborated that “these Confucius Institutes are not really educational projects and have no business being associated with higher learning institutions.”
“They are propaganda centres planted on America’s campuses as part of China’s worldwide intelligence operations.” Lindsay (2020) has further noted that 28 Confucius Institutes have closed down in the US as of December 2019.
The Students for Free Tibet (SFT) has an on-going Say-No-To-CI campaign. SFT continues to pursue a relentless drive to raise the global awareness that Confucius Institutes “aim to censor and silence discussions on important political and human rights issues like Tibet, East Turkestan, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and Tiananmen Square.”
SFT student leaders frequently participate in panel discussions at college campuses. Doris Liu, the director of the documentary film, In the Name of Confucius, is often a guest speaker at these panel discussions. This documentary film has been screened at Parliament Houses and college campuses to demystify the secrecy around the functions and financing of CIs.
Academic freedom and free speech are cherished ideals in all democratic societies. The Association of American University Professors (AAUP) has declared that the protection of academic freedom is its core mission. To this end, the AAUP believes that “academic freedom is the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in higher education institutions.”
AAUP further asserts that "institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole." The modus operandi of CIs at host academic settings seriously undermine the core mission of AAUP. Although these Confucius Institutes are an affront to freedom in academia, these Trojan Horses have made their way past higher education gates. Higher education must uphold its uncompromising ethos of academic freedom above all perceived financial benefits from external sources.
(The author was the Chair of the Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education at California State University, Fullerton, until he retired in July 2020. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)