Confucius Institutes, which are affiliated with the Chinese government, are being closed in several countries after concerns over Beijing’s influence on public opinion, free speech and the autonomy of universities.
Laws in the US and Australia require organizations to be transparent about their connections with foreign states, but the Confucius Institutes in both countries have failed to register with the governments.
In an article earlier this year, University World News Web site cites a report by a US Senate committee that said that since 2016, the institutes have poured US$158 million into US universities, but that the funding comes “with strings attached that can compromise academic freedom.”
Universities were required to avoid certain political topics in classrooms and had to report campus activities to the Confucius Institutes headquarters in Beijing.
As the Taipei Times reported on Aug. 24, New South Wales said it would end Chinese-language programs run through the institutes at 13 of the Australian state’s public schools.
Arizona State University last week became the 16th US university to cancel its relationship with the Confucius Institute, while in Canada, New Brunswick is axing Confucius Institute programs at all of its universities. Arizona State came to its decision after the US Department of Defense said it would end its funding for it otherwise.
The Confucius Institute has been helpful for students, who have learned more about China and Chinese language, and some students have gone on academic exchanges or received scholarships through the institute, but unfortunately these advantages are outweighed by the harm they bring to academic freedoms and free speech.
China is not the only country to have institutionalized language-learning and cultural exchange centers. The Japan Foundation is a Tokyo-funded organization tasked with the international dissemination of Japanese culture. The foundation is responsible for arts, cultural and intellectual exchanges, and promotes Japanese-language education.
A “Formosan foundation” could promote Taiwan’s official languages, including Mandarin, but also Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and Aboriginal languages. It could teach classical Chinese and modern Taiwanese literature, and could serve as a research center for the study of Austronesian people and their migrations.
The Ministry of Culture has overseas offices that are tasked with introducing Taiwanese culture and arts to international audiences, organizing exhibitions and performances, and facilitating cultural exchanges. However, these offices have been established in only 13 countries, have limited exposure and are not the main focus of the ministry. A specialized foundation could do much more to increase Taiwan’s international presence and could provide positive learning opportunities without any strings attached.
The growth of China’s economy has created strong interest in Chinese-language learning, not only among businesspeople and China-focused academics, but also by parents who want their children to be competent in what they expect to continue to be an important language. If Taiwan could provide those language skills to more people, it will gain support in its fight against Chinese hegemony.
Taiwan can offer so much more than Chinese-language study, so a foundation done correctly would need to emphasize this — it would be an important opportunity to show how Taiwan is different from China.
If nothing else, the Confucius Institute has shown how formidable China’s “united front” efforts can be. Taiwan should harness the power of cultural foundations and use that power to do good things for its democratic friends.
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