Confucius Institutes and China’s ‘soft power’

Written by James F. Scotton.

Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government’s language and cultural centres hosted by universities throughout the world, are facing increasing academic resistance in the west. The Institutes, first launched in 2004, have been a remarkable success. By 2011 there were more than 400 Confucius Institutes plus an equal number of Confucius Classrooms in elementary and secondary schools in 104 countries. The United States, Canada, Europe and Japan have been especially involved in the Confucius Program (Sahlins, 2013).

The Confucius Institutes are part of China’s plan to use “soft power” to influence attitudes toward China. Similar Chinese efforts can be seen in Central China Television (CCTV) broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Japanese and Russian and in CNC World, a twenty-four-hour television channel from Xinhua, China’s national news agency. China Daily, the English-language version of the government’s flagship newspaper, and People’s Daily, can be found around the world including in vending machines a few blocks from the White House in Washington, DC.

There is nothing unusual about China’s “public diplomacy.” Nations have been doing this for decades. Today satellites beam propaganda all over the globe. Some programs are news broadcasts with a particular slant on world news. In the Middle East Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya transmit their rival views of the Arab world. Many broadcasts rely heavily on music and cultural programing to attract audiences that might be hostile to outside news and commentary. But Britain’s BBC World has developed such a reputation for unbiased reporting that its news and commentary programs attract huge international audiences.

The Confucius Institutes are popular with university administrations because of generous Chinese government funding, free course materials and even subsidized teachers that enable universities to offer courses in Chinese language and culture. The problem has been with local faculty at these universities who see the Confucius Centers too closely controlled by the Chinese government. As the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) put it: “Confucius Institutes are an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom” (“On Partnership with Foreign Governments: The Case of Confucius Institutes,” 2014). Some faculty believe the fears are overblown, but critics of the Institutes argue that the government pressure, though subtle, is there. “They aren’t trying to stop debate; It’s about management of discussions, not prevention of them,” said an American professor who feared retaliation if he were identified (Guttenplan, 2012Redden, 2014).

The Confucius Institutes are directed by the Chinese Language Council, a Ministry of Education agency. Its goals seem little different from the well-known Alliance Francaise, the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute. All of these programs get some government support. If any of these programs ran counter to their government’s policies, much of their national support, official or otherwise, would certainly disappear. There seem to be two primary problems for the Confucius Institutes.

First, there have been some very heavy handed and very public attempts at censorship. In 2014 Xu Lin, Secretary-General of the Confucius Institutes, ordered her staff to tear out pages of a program for an international conference because they listed Taiwanese academic institutions (Cai, 2014). In December 2014 Xu Lin tried to get a BBC correspondent to delete portions of an interview when the earlier conference problem was raised (Sudworth, 2014).

The second and perhaps more important problem is that Confucius Institutes are situated within the academic structure of the host university. A strongly held value of most of these universities is that faculty members always decide the content of academic programs. To an increasing number of faculty at these host institutions, it appears that outside forces –in fact, Chinese government officials- are attempting to shape Confucius Institute programs to conform to Chinese government policies. This might not be a problem if these institutes confined themselves to Chinese language programs, but the political implications involved in the overall cultural curriculum is bound to create clashes with faculty. These clashes will arise even if the Confucius Institutes can avoid all appearances of censorship. In 2014 the AAUP joined the Canadian Association of University Teachers in recommending universities “cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes” unless local schools have full control over curriculum, texts and teachers. (“On Partnership with Foreign Governments: The Case of Confucius Institutes,” 2014).

A few universities in North America including the prestigious University of Chicago and at least two European universities have either moved to cut ties with the Confucius Institutes or have dropped plans for establishing them. This will be a difficult situation for university administrators who want Chinese programs on campus but lack funds to support them.

Chinese universities have their own concerns about outside influences. The Chinese government makes it clear that the university faculty must support Chinese policies, although this control is difficult to enforce, especially on campuses distant from Beijing. The Chinese do welcome foreign scholars, including many American Fulbright professors. As a Visiting Fulbright Professor at two Chinese universities I never had any problems with academic freedom except when a nervous Beijing bureaucrat asked me not to mention Tiananmen Square in a conference presentation. But China does seem to keep foreign academics away from some sensitive areas. For example, the U.S. Institute for International Studies has tried for years to get a visiting American academic on the faculty of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies. The Center does have U.S. “consultants” but in 2015 only Chinese are listed as faculty.

The Chinese government is not likely to give the Confucius Institutes the degree of independence that would make them welcome on most Western campuses. That model is found in a U.S. State Department program that funds American university institutes at Chinese universities. After it approves and funds the program, the State Department leaves it entirely to the U.S. and Chinese universities to develop and operate it. The programs set up in recent years suggest how cautious the Chinese are being. Ohio State has a program at Wuhan University focusing on cooking, Minnesota set up an American Cultural Center for Sport at Tianjin University, and Kentucky established a Center for Appalachian Studies at Shanghai University (Redden, 2012).

Confucius has been a unifying symbol for Chinese society for 2500 years. In modern times, however, he has had critics both outside and within China. Some Western scholars see Confucianism as a “stultifying tradition” holding back China’s development (Wasserstrom, 2000, pp. 13-36). Lu Xun, perhaps modern China’s most famous writer, saw Confucianism as a major block to the progress of China as well as to his own ambitions (Lu Xun: A Biography, 1984, pp. 91, 210). Confucius is now a historical and even romanticized figure and the philosophy of Confucianism is today only vaguely understood if at all. This is unfortunate since Confucianism still has much to teach modern audiences with its own views on human rights, the importance of the community, and the role of the individual in society. Confucianism can certainly find a place in the philosophies and policies of universities throughout the world (Tong Lam, 2000, pp.147-170).

James F. Scotton is Associate Professor in Journalism at Marquette University. Image Credit: CC by UCL Institute of Education/flickr.

Tong Lam, “Identity and Diversity: The Complexities and Contradictions of Chinese Nationalism,” pp. 147-170, in China Beyond the Headlines, Timothy B. Weston and Lionel M. Jensen, Eds., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
Lu Xun: A Biography, Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1984
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Big Bad China and the Good Chinese: An American Fairytale,” pp. 13-36, in China beyond the Headlines, Timothy B. Weston and Lionel M. Jensen, Eds., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

1 reply »

  1. An interesting piece, but I see no evidence of soft power here (or even in the CIs in general). There is also a confusion of terms – use of public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy, for example, which are not synonyms for soft power. We need more precision in these discussions.

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