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.
“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.
In recent years, China has shifted its focus from Asia to the EU and the US, Hsiao said.
“If you look at the global map of Confucius Institutes, you can see the hierarchy of importance. Europe and North America now have more than three-fourths of all the institutes,” he said.
The initiative is aimed at persuading international society to recognize a new and benign China — it is rising with a civilized, democratic, open and progressive image, despite the fact that it remains unsupportive of human rights, he said.
Chang Mau-kuei (張茂桂), a research fellow at Academic Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, said that through the establishment of the institutes, Beijing tries to use Confucianism to define China.
However, “it is always a problem to use Confucianism to represent China,” Chang said.
“In China, Confucius temples were never built by the people. They were always built by the state, by the empire, by the dynasty. Confucianism is a state ideology. Even today, on Confucius’ birthday, it’s the state leaders or the mayors who go there to pray. So we can say Confucius represents guan wen hua [官文化, official culture], not China,” Chang said.
Confucianism is only part of China, Chang added.
“You have to add Muslim, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Buddhism and numerous minority people to encapsulate the entire China,” he said.
The institutes serve as “state cosmetics” and do not help understanding of the real China, Chang said.
‘FAILED TACTICS’: A lawmaker said Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s success at boosting its ties internationally have boosted identification as Taiwanese Self-identification as “Taiwanese and Chinese,” or solely as “Chinese,” has dropped to record lows, while 63.3 percent of the public regard themselves as Taiwanese, a survey released on Tuesday by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center showed. Respondents identifying as Taiwanese and Chinese dropped to 31.4 percent, while those identifying solely as Chinese fell to 2.7 percent, the survey showed. The results reflect changes in attitudes since 1994 among Taiwanese toward independence and unification with China, as well as self-identification trends since 1992, commenters said. Support for independence was 25.8 percent, while about 5 percent of respondents said that they want the nation
ONLY EXCEPTIONS: The mayors of the two largest cities voiced concerns over hidden cases, while all other local governments are to follow eased CECC guidelines All local governments, with the exception of Taipei and New Taipei City, are to allow dine-in services at restaurants after the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on Friday announced that it would on Tuesday lower a nationwide COVID-19 alert to level 2. The center on July 8 allowed the resumption of dining at restaurants nationwide — despite keeping the alert level at 3. At the time, this prompted all cities and counties, except Penghu Country, to keep local dine-in bans in place. Following Friday’s CECC announcement that COVID-19 prevention measures would be further relaxed, the Taipei and New Taipei City governments
‘NOT IMPOSSIBLE’: Acceptance to the UN would end the nation’s troubles, but it would be impossible to achieve without US backing, Legislative Speaker You Si-kun said The US might recognize Taiwan if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) said yesterday while discussing politics with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Speaking on Chen’s program on Smile Radio, You reminisced about his agrarian childhood, studies, the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party in 1986 and his eight years as Yilan County commissioner. Chen’s appointment of You as premier in February 2002 marked several firsts, as he was Taiwan’s youngest premier, as well as the first from a farming background and first democratically elected county leader to hold the office. Asked to share his views on
‘STILL UNDER CONTROL’: The center also reported the first fatality involving the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, a woman in her 70s who died on Wednesday The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) yesterday reported 30 domestic COVID-19 cases, three imported cases and four deaths. Of the local cases, 15 were men and 15 were women, with the onset of symptoms reported between Saturday and Wednesday, the center said. Taipei and New Taipei City recorded 11 cases each, Taoyuan had seven cases and Hsinchu City had one, it said. Twenty-four of the local cases had known sources of infection, five had unclear links with confirmed cases and one was under investigation, it said. Despite the relatively high number of cases yesterday, the COVID-19 situation “is still under control,” Minister of Health