The unexpectedly rapid expansion of China’s Confucius Institutes since their inception in 2004 has prompted many to consider them a soft power success story.
But such a quick rise is bound to lead to a certain amount of scrutiny which, combined with the general apprehension surrounding China’s increasing economic and political clout, has brought about a something of a backlash. Indeed, the institutes are—despite being defined by China as strictly tools for promoting ‘Chinese language and culture in foreign countries’—referred to by some as vehicles for spreading Chinese propaganda worldwide.
When I spoke to China scholar Don Starr on the subject, he told me he’d only just seen some news coverage of a group of people in California demonstrating outside of a Confucius Institute there, ‘saying they didn’t want Confucian classrooms and all of this communist influence coming in.’
Maria Wey-Shen Siow, East Asia bureau chief of Channel NewsAsia, noted this rising mistrust in the West in the January issue of the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin. But she says that although the concerns are ‘not completely unfounded,’ they also aren’t ‘totally warranted.’
For one, says Siow, the fact that there just isn’t much in the way of funds being put into the programme suggests that the Chinese government isn’t actually that invested in the institutes. The ‘Hanban’s annual budget was only $145 million in 2009, so it would be false to state that China has been spending massively on these institutes,’ she says, pointing out that the figure is significantly less than the British Council spends annually in promoting its programmes, and less than the cost of many Hollywood productions.
Starr also told me that another point undermining the notion that there’s an ideological agenda at play is that the programme just doesn’t touch on some key issues. ‘The Chinese are going to avoid contentious areas such as human rights and democracies and those kinds of things,’ he notes.
Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, also raised this point when I spoke to him.‘Personally I don’t see anything sinister about (Confucius Institutes). Of course, if they wanted to use the money to organize a symposium on Tibetan independence they might run into trouble. But beyond the obvious constraints, I think there’s not a lot to worry about.’
Kenneth Hammond, director of the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State University, agreed there isn’t very much going on in terms of ideological content. ‘We’ve not had any effort from the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing to shape or control the content of our work in any way,’ he told me. ‘We’ve had speakers from Taiwan in our speakers’ series, and in both the China-Mexico and China-Africa conferences there were very broad ranges of ideas and opinions expressed.’
Hammond adds that he also hasn’t experienced any of the backlash other institutes have experienced. ‘I’m aware that there have been organized efforts to oppose the work of Confucius Institutes in certain places in the US, but I think this is often the result of local political interests, and doesn’t reflect either popular concern about the programme or any kind of reality of the Confucius Institutes serving as propaganda for the Chinese state,’ he said.
Hammond says that enrolment for China-related courses at the university has remained strong and more students are going to study in China with each passing year. He says that while there’s bound to be ‘a certain amount of concern or apprehension about how China’s rise will affect the US in the coming years,’ in general, ‘people are responding to this by wanting to know more about China, and this is exactly the role our Confucius Institute plays.’
Chuan Sheng Liu, director of the Confucius Institute in Maryland, and Rebecca McGinnis, the institute’s coordinator, say they’ve had similarly positive experiences. When I spoke to them on the issue, they said that they continue simply to focus on allowing more people in the United States to gain a better understanding of China, a country that ‘only a few decades ago was largely perceived as mysterious and indecipherable,’ so that future misunderstandings don’t arise. They believe that the ongoing outreach of their institute ‘not only helps eliminate stereotypes, but will also lead to a better and more nuanced understanding about the Asian giant.’
All this seems to make sense, and after speaking to a range of people I’ve seen little to support the notion of Confucius Institutes as ominous propaganda. On the contrary, those involved who I’ve spoken with seem genuinely interested in promoting cultural understanding and better communication.
Chuan Sheng Liu told me: ‘Yes, China's profile is rising, and growing understanding has to move both directions. Small steps in an educational setting that promote and support exchanges, learning, appreciation, and thoughtful realizations about each others' strengths and values are a positive sign. There’ll always be those who focus on the negative side. But if we are to promote the ethics of Confucius, he was an upright and positive man of learning who believed that education was open to all.’
Next I’ll be exploring the future of Confucius Institutes, Confucianism and Chinese soft power in a two-part conclusion to this special arts and culture series.