At the opening ceremony of the 12th Confucius Institute Conference in Xi’an last December, Chinese vice-premier Liu Yandong said that Confucius Institutes have “enhanced understanding and friendship between [the] people of China and other countries, and promoted the peaceful development of the world and the progress of human civilisation”.
Their reception in the West has been very different. Far from being viewed as a benevolent gift to the world, Confucius Institutes are increasingly seen as compromising the values of the universities and societies of which they are a part. And against a backdrop of concerns about Chinese influence, academics, governments and the public have called for universities to close their Confucius Institutes.
There are two problems with this argument. First, it is based on the assumption that there are no compromises in academic life. This is simply not true. I work in a teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) programme at an Australian university with a large proportion of international students, mainly from Asia and the Middle East. This necessitates dealing with different values and worldviews. In teaching, I don’t put Saudi men and Saudi women together in pairs or groups. Such gender segregation goes against my own beliefs and also those of Australian universities and society more generally. It may not be immediately obvious why Saudi custom should trump all that.
However, the university benefits both from the fees that these students bring and the prestige of hosting students on Saudi government scholarships. Both could be at risk if I insisted on men and women working together. Moreover, doing so would cause distress to both parties. When people are distressed they don’t learn – and my job is to create an environment conducive to learning. Yet I still expect Saudis to work with people of the opposite gender from other countries, so it is not as if they get it entirely their own way. It is a compromise. No doubt you can think of your own examples; there are many in academic life.
Chinese-language proficiency and cultural competence are considered vital to Australia’s interests, but the government has not committed the funds and resources necessary to ensure that these are widespread among the population. Confucius Institutes can fill this gap by providing teaching staff, teaching materials, language classes and cultural activities.
The institutes do try to portray China in a positive light; that is their purpose, as with any other government-funded language and culture promotion initiative. As such, some topics are off-limits – or at least discussion of them is circumscribed. These include Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong.
But I studied Chinese long before Confucius Institutes existed, and sensitive topics were not covered then either. The closest thing I can recall is a couple of set readings on growing links between China and Taiwan, which did not take a position on Taiwan’s status. My teachers clearly did not think such topics were essential to a language class. Provided that there are structures in place for universities to maintain oversight of Confucius Institutes, and also that the university makes available other avenues within which controversial aspects of China’s history and politics may be pursued, allowing the institutes to adopt a pro-China position on contentious issues seems an acceptable trade-off.
Yet any compromise involving Confucius Institutes is seen as particularly heinous. This is the second problem with the case against the institutes – their critics are not really objecting to cultural diplomacy but rather to China itself and its system of government. One relatively recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The Meaning of Sharp Power”, depicts the institutes as vehicles for China to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries”. The article’s authors both work for the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives most of its funding from the US Congress. Its goal is “to support the projects of non-governmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals”, focusing in particular on “the remaining communist and authoritarian countries”. These are noble goals, and undoubtedly the organisation does some good work. However, it is hard to see how such efforts do not also pierce, penetrate and perforate the political and information environments of targeted countries to further US interests.
At least some commentators are honest enough to state their objections clearly. In an article for Politico in January, “How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms”, Ethan Epstein, associate editor of the Weekly Standard, portrays Confucius Institutes as fundamentally different from the well-known European language and culture promotion organisations, such as the British Council, the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française, because the countries they originate from are “not communist regimes”.
The latest Confucius Institute closure occurred at Texas A&M University in response to a request from the Texas Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Michael McCaul that the state’s universities discontinue them. Even Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey distinguished service professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Chicago and a staunch critic of Confucius Institutes, admitted that this was a case of a government telling universities what they can and cannot do: exactly what Confucius Institutes are accused of doing.
Working as an academic means doing your best to educate students and further knowledge in circumstances that are far from ideal. Instances of improper behaviour should, of course, be called out and stopped. But so far, there are no proven instances of Confucius Institutes violating academic freedom, spreading propaganda or exerting inappropriate influence over university processes and procedures. Closing them is a step too far.
Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in ESOL/TESOL at Flinders University, Australia. He is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.