On May 17, the US State Department suddenly announced that several Chinese teachers at China’s Confucius Institutes across the US had to leave the US, as they had entered on the wrong visa. The Chinese side was dumbfounded. A week later, however, the US made a U-turn over the dispute. Washington would never do what China wants it to just because Beijing tells it to, so it is inconceivable that it changed its mind due to Chinese protests. What, then, was the reason for the about-face?
China has established Confucius Institutes across the world, and nowhere more than in the US. Since expelling Chinese teachers would make it difficult to run the institutes, the US universities hosting the academic facilities all complained at the decision, and this was the main reason for the US conducting its elaborate change of plans.
Despite their difference in thinking, the West does not reject Confucian thoughts. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Four Books (四書) had been translated by Italian missionary Matteo Ricci and circulated in the West. More recently, the Confucian concept of family ethics and its positive impact on social order have been acknowledged by scholars in materialist Western society. Tu Weiming (杜維明), a professor of Confucian Studies at Harvard University, is also highly praised in both Europe and the US.
The West’s “Confuciusphobia” is really a result of Western discontent with the way China uses these institutes and their textbooks to promote its concept of communist “harmony.” Even Li Changchuan (李長春), China’s propaganda chief and leader of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideological Work, admits that the Confucius Institutes are a key component of China’s global propaganda drive.
The Confucius Institutes have not only been opposed in Europe and the US in recent years, but have also been controversial in China itself.
First, the Confucius Institutes are criticized for being schools only in name. Despite carrying the Confucius title, the schools do not teach Confucian culture and most of the Chinese-language teachers sent by China have no background in Confucian studies.
Furthermore, China’s domestic educational budget is relatively low and initiatives aimed at building schools in remote areas, entitled Project Hope (希望工程), has not yet been completed. Therefore, spending a massive amount of money on the establishment of Confucius Institutes overseas seems inappropriate considering the problems China faces in establishing a domestic education system.
Finally, the Confucius Institutes have developed into yet another hotbed for corruption in China. Recently, it was revealed that the bid to build a Web site for the institute was running as high as 35.2 million yuan (US$5.52 million) and there are often reports that Chinese officials have been profiting as new applications are made to establish more of the institutes.
The visa dispute has been temporarily resolved, but given the political background and the astronomical budgets of the Confucius Institutes, criticism of the educational facility is unlikely to disappear. Still, if the ongoing dispute can serve to warn of China’s “soft power” policy, perhaps there is something positive that can be drawn from the episode.
In the past, communist China made every effort to eliminate Confucianism and today — in its drive for “maintaining stability” (維穩) — Beijing has adopted a selective attitude toward the development of Sinology. No one knows what will happen with the Confucius Institutes in future, but China should at least stop abusing Confucius’ name.