Tue, May 31, 2011 - Page 8 News List

China picks pockets of academics worldwide

By Peng Ming-min 彭明敏

Since 2004, China has established hundreds of “Confucius Institutes” at many colleges and universities around the world. The purpose of their establishment is to promote Chinese language and Chinese culture. The total budget for the project is about US$10 billion and the cost for establishing an institute is about US$150,000 to US$200,000, with the addition of follow-up financial aid.

Today, the Chinese government has established more than 300 Confucius Institutes and more than 300 Confucius Classrooms in more than 90 countries. Each institute also offers scholarships to several students to study in China.

On the surface, China is using these institutes to demonstrate its “soft power,” but things are not as simple as they seem. Colleges and universities where a Confucius Institute is established all have to sign a contract in which they declare their support for Beijing’s “one China” policy. As a result, both Taiwan and Tibet have become taboos at these institutes. Other sensitive issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the Falun Gong movement, the neglect of human rights, China’s exchange rate manipulation, environmental hazards, its military expansion and the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) are all issues that have become untouchables.

After a Canadian television station reported live from riots in Tibet last year, a Confucius Institute immediately intervened, in the end forcing the station to apologize for its reporting. Independent institute of higher learning should be able to study and comment on anything they want. How can they implement restrictions saying that specific policies cannot be opposed? That is a serious violation of academic independence, objectivity and freedom.

At some universities, this issue has caused so much dispute it has become a question of whether or not a Confucius Institute should be allowed at the school. One public university in Sweden even kicked up such a fuss that changes were made both to staff and system, which only goes to show the magic of money.

When I moved from Sweden to the US to take up a teaching position in 1970, Sino-US relations were beginning to defrost. Then-US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. At the time, the two governments had not had diplomatic relations for more than 20 years.

The “China experts” in the US who were unable to visit China in person were like big chefs banned from their kitchens. Naturally, they were resentful. However, the opportunity finally came and whoever obtained a Chinese visa first would be the big winner. China experts fell over each other in their eagerness to get to China, many of them sacrificing their professionalism to curry favor with Beijing, hoping to win the Chinese authorities’ attention. Even some academics who originally cared about human rights in Taiwan joined the stampede. The Chinese authorities must have been laughing secretly when they saw the US academics walk straight into their trap.

Seeing China fever across the US, active, passive, real and fake, I publicly proposed the right of the Taiwanese people to self-determination. Those who wanted to be nice called the proposal unusually brilliant, while others said it was “a skunk at the garden party.” Although not all US academics attacked my proposal, most of them kept their distance.

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