“How do they work? She told me that China gives money to people who are not well known and who will research from peripheral and insignificant positions and thus develop pro-China attitudes. They just buy you out,” Hsiao said.
China spends large amounts on the project, Hsiao said. From 2006 onwards, the initative’s annual budget was 350 million yuan (US$56.2 million), 460 million yuan, 820 million yuan, 1.23 billion yuan, 859 million yuan and 1.21 billion yuan, he said.
Confucius Institutes have two defining features which contrast them with the likes of the Goethe Institute or the British Council, said Wang Juei-chi (王瑞琦), a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at National Chengchi University.
First, they are funded by the Chinese government and operate under its guidelines and directions via a Beijing headquarters.
Second, they are affiliated with higher-education institutions and operate within host universities on a partnership basis, while the financing is shared between Hanban and host institutions, Wang said.
Such attributes combined with Hanban’s funding for facilities, maintenance, teachers, and educational materials have raised concerns about their influence on academic freedom and the possibility of industrial espionage, she said.
A study of the implementation of Confucius Institutes in Thailand, by Alan Yang (楊昊), an assistant research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, said China is “extremely strict in its review of political attitudes of volunteers” who work and teach at the institutes.
Participants are required to state their “social connections” and “political inclinations.”
They are also required to make a political declaration that they “do not participate in the Falung Gong movement or any other activities that harm China’s national interests,” Yang said.
Hsiao described how Chinese teachers and volunteers are more like “civil diplomats” rather than “academics.”
In Thailand, China places particular emphasis on the training of Thai-Chinese teachers.
The Thai government selects teachers and college graduates to study in China for one or two years to learn Chinese before they can return to Thailand to teach under a bilateral teaching framework agreement in place since 2006, Yang said.
Yang’s study found that Cambodia is very supportive of the Confucius initiative and mobilizes government staff and Chinese school students to take part in related activities, which “display the obvious intention of the government to promote the initiative.”
Nguyeh Van Chinh, a professor at Vietnam National University, said that Vietnam is the only country in the Mekong region which does not seem to welcome Confucius Institutes.
There is a popular conception in Vietnam that teaching Chinese is not simply about providing language skills, he said.
“It is believed that the language conveys Chinese history, culture and way of thinking to Vietnamese,” he said.
Nguyeh’s study corroborated the finding of Yang regarding how Hanban controls the institutes.
In Thailand, each institute has the freedom to design its own programs, but they must be approved before implementation, he said.
“Hanban places a strong emphasis on the importance of textbooks originating from China and institute’s boards have limited power as they are placed directly under the administration of headquarters in Beijing,” Nguyeh’s study said.