The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Confucius Institutes — which former US president Donald Trump vowed to eliminate during his administration — have been trying to make a comeback ever since US President Joe Biden took office, a report published by the US National Association of Scholars said.
In its heyday, the CCP had 118 Confucius Institutes in universities across the US, but today only 14 of them remain. To crack down on Confucius Institutes, which are used by the CCP for ulterior motives, the Trump administration took a number of steps.
First, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act stipulated that universities that host Confucius Institutes on their campuses would not receive language program subsidies from the US Department of Defense.
Second, the Trump administration categorized Confucius Institutes as “foreign missions” under the provisions of the Foreign Missions Act, restricting the entry and exit of their personnel and the free flow of funds.
Finally, Trump issued an executive order that required US universities to disclose the foreign funds they receive, or their federal subsidies would be suspended.
Although in some aspects, such as the Indo-Pacific strategy, US-China competition remains, but in the field of culture and education, Biden appears to be disinclined to impose restrictions.
This can be seen, first, in the rescinding of the order that US universities must disclose their financial sources, and second, the Department of Defense no longer requiring universities to choose between language program subsidies and Confucius Institutes.
Meanwhile, the CCP adjusted and restructured the Chinese Ministry of Education’s “Hanban” (漢辦, Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Confucius Institute Headquarters) under the new name Center for Language Education and Cooperation (中外語言交流合作中心) in July 2020. Beijing also established the Chinese International Education Foundation (中國國際中文教育基金會) under the guise of a private charitable organization, to supervise the Confucius Institutes.
The CCP is, on the one hand, trying to maintain the remaining Confucius Institutes as much as possible, while on the other, adopting flexible approaches to bring back those that have already been closed.
The most common means of achieving this is to change the name Confucius Institute into a name such as “China Research Center,” essentially retaining the original office premises and staff.
If the host US university does not accept this model, the Confucius Institute is transferred to the university as a directly affiliated institution, decoupling funds and personnel from the Chinese side — only the teachers and the provisions of the curriculum remain.
The final solution is to find a new owner — another education institution — to house the abolished Confucius Institute.
Judging by these organizational and practical adjustments, it can be seen that having weathered the Trump administration’s crackdown on Confucius Institutes, China has become shrewder in policy rebranding and shown flexibility.
For example, government organizations have been disguised as non-governmental organizations to survive. Of these, some closed Confucius Institutes have been relocated to high schools or community education institutions, proving they are willing to sacrifice nearly anything to survive.
According to Beijing’s plan, Confucius Institutes should be set up in universities, and Confucius Institute Classrooms should be set up in high schools. Settling themselves up in high schools is tantamount to a downgrading of their status, but under the present difficult circumstances, they have to swallow their pride to survive.
If Taiwan can seize the opportunity while the Confucius Institutes are undergoing transformation and seize the market for overseas Chinese teaching, it would help enhance Taiwan’s soft power and visibility within the international community, and could even enable Taiwan to compete with China’s Confucius Institutes.
Yang Chung-hsin is a civil servant.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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