Taiwan is one of the few countries that does not have Confucius Institutes — outposts of the Chinese government that have sprung up around the world — but local academics are eager to look into the strategic considerations of the cultural centers.
Under a two-year project at Academia Sinica’s Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, researchers tentatively concluded that political outreach in the form of language teaching and cultural exchanges aimed at improving China’s image abroad has been met with concern about academic autonomy in host institutions.
“There are three T’s and one D seen as taboo in Confucius Institutes — Taiwan, Tibet, [the] Tiananmen Square [massacre] and the Dalai Lama … Falun Gong is also an absolute no-no,” said Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), chairman of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, who leads the project.
Hsiao said he learned the implicit rules about off-limit topics during interviews with staff at host institutions in Southeast Asian countries and in the US during his fieldwork.
A large part of the project was to collect empirical evidence on how China implements the institutes, the impact on host countries and how they respond to the strategy.
China established the Office of Chinese Language Council International — known as Hanban — under the State Council in 1987 to promote Chinese language learning worldwide.
The office launched an initiative to establish Confucius Institutes within higher education institutions in 2004, following a related program which partners with schools abroad to open “Confucius Classrooms.”
The institutions are named after Confucius, a philosopher in ancient China, who believed a harmonious society is built on personal morality.
According to last year’s annual report, there are 358 institutes, and 500 Confucius Classrooms in 105 countries, Hsiao said.
The Chinese government’s goal is to exceed 1,000 insitutes by 2020, Hsiao added.
The rapid increase in the number of institutes gives Beijing convincing evidence of the initiatives’ success, Hsiao said.
From 2006 to last year, the growth rate in Confucius Institutes was 586 percent, with the number of institutes jumping from 125 to 858.
The number of countries hosting the offices increased from 49 to 105, a 114 percent increase, he said.
There are reportedly more than 40 countries and more than 200 institutions still on the waiting list for such projects, he added.
“It’s a smart move. However, criticism has arisen,” Hsiao said, when presenting a paper which examines the risk of the initiative and China’s “soft power” diplomacy at an international workshop titled: “Confucius Institutes in Asia and Beyond” on Nov. 30 at Academia Sinica.
There have been several disputes in universities in the US and Europe about whether to accept Confucius Institutes, and these cases “really show that money talks,” Hsiao said.
“People in favor of the institutes say they bring in revenue and provide opportunities for students to learn Chinese. Those opposed to the initiative worry they place limitations on academic freedom and dislike the political machinations behind them,” he said.
Hsiao said knew of one case where a professor was ousted from her position as director of an Asia-Pacific study center and transferred to another department because she was opposed the institutes.