Confucius Institutes: Cultural exchange or political propaganda?

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'In the name of Confucius' premiered in Wellington followed by a screening in Auckland. (Source: Tibet Telegraph)

During the cultural revolution in 1966, Mao led an army of communists to uproot traditional Chinese culture. Confucianism, the basis of China’s 5000 years of civilisation, was severely criticized during such reform.

The revival of Confucianism with ‘Confucius Institutes’ inadvertently makes one question whether Confucianism has been distorted for the ideological justification of an autocratic state or if the Chinese regime has genuinely reinstated the morals of Confucianism.

Read more on Confucianism and its interactions with the Chinese government

Last month, the documentary In the name of Confucius premiered in Wellington followed by a screening in Auckland. The film addressed the Chinese regime’s expansion of soft power in educational institutes. Namely, the Confucius Institutes.

The screening was followed by a discussion panel with guests Doris Liu, director and producer of the film, and Dr Kevin Carrico, lecturer in Chinese studies in Macquarie University.

What are Confucius Institutes?

Confucius Institutes (CI) abroad have a partnership with Hanban, also known as the Office of Chinese Language Council International in China. Funded by the Chinese government, Hanban sponsors teaching material, teaching assistants and sponsors Mandarin classrooms.

As of October last year, there is a total of 516 Confucius Institutes and 1,076 Confucius classrooms globally in 142 countries and regions.

In New Zealand, there are currently three Confucius Institutes at the University of Auckland, Victoria University and the University of Canterbury. The University of Otago has launched a CI satellite office in 2014. In addition, the Confucius Institutes have also set up 30 Confucius Classrooms within primary and secondary schools. These are scattered across Auckland, Dunedin, Tauranga, Wellington, Whanganui, Rotorua and various other regions.

According to the Herald, CI has sponsored $30,000 to each of six Confucius Classrooms in 2010.

In 2015, CI brought 42 Mandarin language assistants into local primary and secondary schools.

The Controversy

The film features a former teacher of CI, Sonia Zhao, at the McMaster University in Canada. Zhao had filed a human rights complaint to the human rights tribunal in Ontario, regarding the discrimination of the CI hiring policy which prohibited applicants from having certain beliefs.

Her contract, as well as the CI website, prohibited its staff from practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation practice based on truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. Due to its rising popularity in 1999 to the point where its numbers (100 million) far exceeded that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the practice was deemed dangerous and illegal by the Chinese-state.

After Zhao had publicized her case in Toronto, the hiring policy was taken down from the CI website. (source: CI Website)
After Zhao had publicized her case in Toronto, the hiring policy was taken down from the CI website. (source: CI Website)

After Zhao had publicized her case in Toronto, the hiring policy was taken down from the CI website.

Read the hiring policy here, as at Jul 2012 before it was replaced.

Even though it is the New Zealand CI staff who are involved in the final recruitment stage of teaching staff from China, the pool of applicants will have undergone pre-selection by the governmental agency Hanban in China.

Regarding hiring decisions being made in China, McMaster University assistant vice-present Andrew Farquhar said that “We were uncomfortable, and felt that it didn’t reflect the way the university would do hiring.”

McMaster did eventually terminate its contract with CI in 2013.

Human rights violations in China has also been reported amongst Christians and ethnic groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans.

According to Zhao, teaching staff at the CI are instructed to adopt the same stance as the Chinese government when sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen massacre and the independence of Tibet and Taiwan arise.

In 2010, the then minister of propaganda Liu Yunshan suggests that “overseas and domestic propaganda” should be “comprehensive, multilevel and wide-ranging.”

Liu had also encouraged “propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong.”

There have been numerous cases where the Chinese regime has taken its political censorship abroad, whereby those who did not act in compliance were met with severe backlash from Beijing.

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While CI teaching assistants from China may not necessarily share the same political views as the Chinese Communist Party, they are subjected to a fair amount of pressure and censorship.

There have been cases when university professors in China had been fired for speaking critically of the Chinese government on social media; when academic institutes such as the Cambridge University had received pressure to remove 300 articles including keywords ‘Tiananmen, Cultural Revolution, Taiwan and Tibet;’ when books such as Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia had been delayed from being published; all of which reveal the extent to which a dictatorship has compromised upon academic freedom.

The introduction of CI’s may ultimately subject our next generation to an education which may potentially convey an incomplete story, or a one-sided one. That is, the Chinese government’s official version of its own history which speaks nothing of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in China nor about what is happening in Taiwan and Tibet.

The discussion continues between the audience and director Doris Liu following the panel. (Source: The Epoch Times)
The discussion continues between the audience and director Doris Liu following the discussion panel. (Source: The Epoch Times)
Confucius Institutes: cultural exchange or propaganda?

“As China’s power on the global stage continues to rise, it’s of course reasonable that the PRC government wants to create a global environment that’s amendable to its illiberal, dictatorial political system,” said Dr Kevin Carrico. “Unfortunately in order to achieve that, you would have to create a global environment that is not amendable to openness, honesty, or criticism.”

In 2011, a standing member of the Politburo in Beijing, Li Changchun, said, “the Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad.”

“It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power,” said Li. “Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

On the subject of resisting infiltration from foreign governments, director Doris Liu said that Western nations respond quickly once a threat is identified.

“There are around 16 universities across North America and Europe, and one school board [that have decided] to close Confucius Institutes or abort their relationship with Confucius Institutes,” said Liu.

The US Congress has also recently passed a bill which prohibits any funding from the Department of Defence to go towards any institutes or programs that hosts a Confucius Institute. The Department has also requested for the availability of contracts and agreements made with any Chinese-state affiliated institutions including the CI.

Congress has also recently passed a bill which prohibits any funding from the Department of Defense to go towards any institutes or programs that hosts a Confucius Institute. (Source: Congress)
The US Congress has also recently passed a bill which prohibits any funding from the Department of Defense to go towards any institutes or programs that hosts a Confucius Institute. (Source: Congress)

However Doris Liu also pointed out that Chinese authorities can easily change tactics to temporarily resolve disputes.

For instance, the discriminatory clause in the hiring contract was in print and online in various languages on the Hanban website.

“When Sonia took her case publicly, that clause was taken down from the English version first, then from the Chinese version,” said Liu. “So the Chinese government reacts to outside criticism or attitudes towards itself very quickly.”

While there is “a sincere wish to learn Chinese language and culture and to exchange with China,” Liu suggests that spreading “Chinese language and culture” is not the sole agenda of funding from the PRC.

Last year, professor Anne-Marie Brady published Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping which discussed the Chinese government’s strategy to “influence international perceptions about China, shape international debates about the Chinese government and strengthen management over the Chinese-language public sphere in China, as well as globally.”

Carrico urges us to remain open and honest with our speech as citizens of the free world.

He said, “The most important thing we can do, for those who have the ability to speak out, and to share our thoughts, is to do it. To raise our concerns about the Confucius Institutes, about ethnic policies in China, about party state interference abroad, about ongoing threats towards Taiwan. The list is unfortunately endless. I do hope that people will leave this film with a newfound determination to speak openly about these challenges.”

Watch the panel discussions here for the Auckland and Wellington screenings.

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