On the surface, China’s Confucius Institutes are committed to promoting Chinese language learning and culture. However, it is increasingly apparent the institutes are the vanguard for China in a global ideological struggle to influence international opinion, part of a strategy to create a new “weak West, strong China.”
Politburo Standing Committee member and Ideology and Propaganda Leading Small Group chairman Li Changchun (李長春) has expressly chosen the institutes to be China’s main instrument for the overseas propaganda war.
In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said: “We must deeply recognize the gravity and complexity of struggle in the ideological domain … the international cultural and public opinion structure of ‘strong West and weak us’ has not yet been fully reversed.”
Over the past decade China has been planning an ideological conquest, establishing more than 1,000 Confucius Institutes in more than 120 countries on five continents. Instead of employing the inter-university cooperation model, it has operated the institutes independently, providing free materials, scholarships, salaries and travel expenses for teaching staff, with funding running into several million US dollars. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The institutes are Chinese concessions on the campuses of Western universities, under Chinese jurisdiction.
Many academics believe this represents the biggest setback to academic freedom since the US opened up to these initiatives. However, over the past two years Western academics have become alert to the issue. In December last year, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called on Canadian universities and colleges to stop working with the institutes, and in the past few months such opposition has become increasingly vocal. This month alone, the Toronto District School Board suspended plans to cooperate with Confucius Institutes and the American Association of University Professors issued an official call for universities to cut ties with them, saying they function as a political arm of the Chinese state and do not respect academic freedom.
In April, more than 100 academics from the University of Chicago, including the renowned Chinese academic Anthony Yu (余國藩), signed a petition calling on the university to end its contract with the Confucius Institute. Their objections included procedural violations and infringement of rights, connected to the non-transparent way in which the original agreement between the universities was reached five years ago — very similar, in fact, to Taiwanese objections over the cross-strait service trade pact. The protests against media monopolization, the Sunflower movement and the opposition to the Confucius Institutes are not simply isolated products tied to specific geopolitical phenomena, they are all manifestations of a rejection of China’s behavior.
The petition describes the University of Chicago’s reputation and responsibilities. The gist is that the university has privileges not available to other schools, and that “mindful only of its own welfare,” it is lending the weight of its reputation to the Confucius Institute, therefore “participating in a worldwide, politico-pedagogical project ... that is contrary in many respects to its own academic values,” the petition said.
When China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) visited I-Shou University, the young members of Taiwan March were not shy about expressing their opinions. Taiwan’s universities are obsessed with school rankings, perhaps they should learn from the professors at the University of Chicago.
Li Chung-chih is a professor at Illinois State University’s School of Information Technology.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Perry Svensson
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