When Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, meeting with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, announced the decision to establish the first Confucius Institute, at Hanoi University, Vietnam, the news stirred considerable controversy among Vietnamese intellectuals.
Any move by the Vietnam’s communist government that smacks of dependency on China is likely to prompt protest. However, setting up a Confucius Institute, with its overtones of cultural hegemony, may only be distracting the Vietnamese public from more substantial concerns.
Confucius Institutes are educational and cultural institutions run by the Chinese government. They operate with the following objectives: encourage Chinese language learning, popularize Confucianism, and promote cultural exchange between China and other countries.
These three objectives actually serve one larger goal: building China’s “soft power.” Despite the controversy, it is not the institutes themselves that are the concern, nor even China’s soft power initiatives in general. Rather, the bigger worry is the hard power that China has demonstrated to a passive Vietnamese government in recent decades. Soft power should be considered in that context.
Take language learning – in this case, Chinese – for young Vietnamese. In fact, this should be encouraged. With tens of thousands of Chinese now living in Vietnam and comprehensive relations between the two communist countries lasting many years, Chinese language skills means jobs for Vietnamese. There is a natural incentive to learn the language, with or without a Confucius Institute.
Promoting Confucianism? Vietnam already has it. With 2,000 years of Confucianism in Vietnam, there seems little to gain by promoting it. Indeed, Vietnam continues to grapple with some of the less positive repercussions of the philosophy, such as an inert mindset. What it ought to be doing now is introducing the democratic thinking and creative culture of the West, just as Japan did starting from the late 19th century. That aside, there seems little to worry about in two governments trying to pour more Confucian water into a glass that is already full.
As for bilateral cultural exchange, given Vietnam’s political dependence on China, this too has already been taking place for some time, and has been mostly a one-way street for China. The concern here is not so much education and culture, but the broader political, economic and social dependence of Vietnam on China. The West doesn’t worry about Chinese soft power, because although a behemoth, China is known to have critical issues to deal with at home. But Vietnam’s government has left the doors wide open for China to impose whatever it sees fit. A Confucius Institute is just one more small brush stroke in a large picture that has been ugly for a long time.
Let’s review some of the practical upshots of Chin’s involvement in Vietnam. For instance, China and Hong Kong were given 50-year leases over nearly 200,000 hectares of upstream forests belonging to ten border provinces. More than 90% of projects involving electricity, mining, oil, metals or chemicals in Vietnam are run by China through the engineering, procurement and construction contracts. Tens of thousands of Chinese manual laborers have entered Vietnam, displacing local workers.
Vietnam has also become an importer of outdated technologies, low-quality products and poisonous chemicals from China. The Paracel and Spratly islands are in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone but are now under Chinese control. Chinese magazines, movies, cultural and political documents flood the Vietnam market.
In the presence of all this, what is one Confucius Institute? And a Vietnamese government already so dependent on its comrades in China on the ideology-based comrades from PRC to the extent it can offer only a feeble protest when its own fishermen are shot at by Chinese would hardly complain about a Confucius Institute anyway.
No, the controversy surrounding the establishment of a the Confucius Institute really only serves to distract public opinion from scandals, such as newborn babies dying after being injected with low quality vaccines, the eviction of farmers to free land for developers, and the continued abuses of human rights by security forces.
The Vietnamese government has been adapt at distracting the public for its advantage. The establishment of Confucius Institute is very likely another example.
Huynh Thuc Vy is a blogger in Vietnam. She is the daughter of dissident-writer Huynh Ngoc Tuan.