Since the first institute opened ten years ago, 475 Confucius Institutes (CIs) and 851 smaller Confucius Classrooms (CCs) have been established in 126 countries. In 2014 alone, 35 CIs and 205 CCs have been opened worldwide, according to Hanban, the Chinese organization in charge of the institutes.
These numbers raise concerns outside of China about the institute’s intentions, and have prompted some to consider the future of China’s most prominent and most controversial cultural diplomacy initiative.
After the University of Chicago suspended negotiations for the renewal of the agreement for a second term of its Confucius Institute, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on December 4 on whether academic freedom is threatened by China’s influence on U.S. universities, with the Confucius Institute receiving particular attention.
Debates about the “Confucius Institute Dilemma” of foreign universities – whether CIs are “hardly a threat to academic freedom” or whether they are “academic malware” – is nothing new and the December hearing was not the first of its kind: A 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was followed by the release of the so-called Lugar Report in February 2011, which concluded that the United States was continuing to fall farther behind China in public diplomacy. In March 2012, the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation held a hearing on “The Price of Public Diplomacy with China,” focusing on Chinese propaganda efforts in the U.S., including Confucius Institutes.
The most recent hearing, which among other aspects highlighted the issue of potential self-censorship by American academics, prompted a spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry to respond by saying that all Confucius Institutes in the United States had been voluntarily applied for by U.S. universities and that critics should “make joint efforts to reject prejudice.” She further noted that “all class and cultural activities are open and transparent [and China] has never interfered with academic freedom.”
The same tone was adapted by Xu Lin, the chief executive of CIs, during the annual Confucius Institute Conference held on December 7 and 8 in Xiamen. The meeting was themed “Embrace the New Decade of Confucius Institute” and brought together more than 2000 delegates, including directors of CIs and presidents of host universities from around the world, representatives of Chinese partner institutions, Chinese officials, and Chinese enterprises involved in the construction of Confucius Institutes.
In her closing remarks, Xu Lin briefly mentioned the congressional hearing and directly addressed Marshall Sahlins, currently the CIs’ most prominent critic. She dismissed his accusation that CIs undermine academic freedom and invited him to have a close look at any institute. Referring to his latest book, she denied that Confucius Institutes are an “academic virus,” rather she said CIs are like a “flower.” Xu also noted that the institutes should stay away from politics.
While it is, from the Chinese point of view, an understandable attempt to separate the institutes from politics (a tendency that is not unique to Chinese cultural diplomats), the conference itself clearly illustrated that CIs are in fact closely related to China’s politics and foreign policy. Not only did Liu Yandong, vice premier of the PRC, attend the conference as she did in previous years, but in her keynote speech she clearly outlined the political implications of the work of CIs. She linked the institutes to the two “centennial goals” of the Chinese people, namely to double the 2010 GDP and people’s income and finish the building of a society of initial prosperity in all respects by 2020, as well as to the attempts to realize “the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Another political hint, maybe minor but nevertheless telling, was that all delegates were invited to a presentation of the dance drama “The Dream of the Maritime Silk Road.”
Next to these political components the conference illustrated that CIs (still) face a number of practical issues, including a lack of teachers, teaching materials, insufficient division of labor between local and Chinese partners, and apparently issues of finances.
To diversify funding for the CIs, the idea of a CI Alumni Association and a CI Foundation were discussed. In November 2013, a decision passed by the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP encouraged social organizations and Chinese-funded institutions to get involved in the development of Confucius Institutes, which, for the first time, eased regulations on multichannel financing of the institute. Xu Lin noted that an alumni association would be a platform through which people could “give their support to us” and with regards to future donations she said that a number of Chinese companies such as Kweichow Moutai Group, Hainan Airlines and CITIC Group “have expressed their interest in supporting Confucius Institutes.”
Given that officially China subsidizes every CI with a set budget, it comes as no surprise that Hanban has to look for new sources of funding as the number of institutes is still growing.
Another potential idea to move beyond the growing pains could be the idea of “Model Confucius Institutes.” This idea was put forward at last year’s conference and CI Headquarters has started to select certain institutes based on criteria such as the number of staff and students, and grant them the status of a “Model CI,” which should lead to more funding and preferential treatment.
This idea raised quite a few eyebrows in Xiamen, as attendees considered the potential for greater competition among institutes, the question of how decisions would be made, and what would happen if your institute were not be chosen as a model site. This point will be of particular interest when thinking about the future of the undertaking, as Hanban will have to find a way to move from quantity – as reflected in the increase in the number of institutes – to more quality, which may come with a consolidation phase, meaning that not all 475 CIs will necessarily witness the second decade of this enterprise.
Falk Hartig is a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, working on China’s public and cultural diplomacy, China’s global image and the internationalization of Chinese media.