Has Beijing’s Trojan Horse Developed a Limp?

Olga Sorokina, Beijing

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Ten years ago a network of Confucius Institutes was founded as a soft power tool designed to promote Chinese culture and foster the country’s positive image on a global scale. However, it appears that the institution has not managed to fulfil its primary objective, and to an extent has become ‘westernized.’ BRICS Business Magazine interviewed academics closely familiar with the Confucius Institute system to explore the reasons behind this.

The People’s Republic saw the launch of a worldwide network of Confucius Institutes (CIs or Hanban), supervised entirely by China’s Ministry of Education, as a matter of paramount priority for the country. Launched back in 2004 in Seoul, South Korea, branches were soon open in educational institutions in the United States, Germany, France and many other countries.

The Chinese government set up a separate budget to finance the CIs. According to various estimates, between 2009 and 2010 it allocated $8.7 billion to improving China’s image abroad as part of its ‘soft power’ doctrine. Education grants were awarded to 265,000 students. In October 2010 CIs went operational in more than 90 countries with 322 institutes, including 80 in the United States alone. Currently, Confucius Institutes are operating at 18 universities in Russia, eight in Brazil, four in South Africa and two in India.

The primary objective behind the Hanban initiative is to teach Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language outside of China, to control a single Chinese language testing and certification system, and to foster a positive image of Chinese culture.

But as the CI network celebrates its tenth anniversary today, many experts believe that the implementation of the idea was far from perfect, arguing that the institutes have failed in the West primarily because of their close affiliation with the Chinese government structure.

Confucius Institutes are accused of attempting to promote the views of China’s governing Communist Party on such issues as Taiwan and Tibet, of limiting academic freedoms at host universities, of spying on students, and even of taking part in industrial and military espionage on behalf of the People’s Republic. From time to time articles published in the Western press have referred to Confucius Institutes as the ‘Trojan horse’ of the Communist Party of China. As a result of growing criticism, teaching staff at Melbourne University and the University of Chicago spoke out against the development of Confucius Institutes.

Dr. Thorsten Pattberg is German writer, linguist and cultural critic, and author of The East-West Dichotomy, Shengren, and other books. He worked at the Confucius Institute in Beijing until late 2013. Today he lives and works in Tokyo, where he is writing a new book commissioned by the Confucius Institute Headquarters. He is a former Research Fellow at Peking University’s Institute of Advanced Humanistic Studies – one of the largest academic institutions in China.

Dr. Pattberg, how did you manage to get a job at the Confucius Institute? After all, it is common knowledge that the organization is virtually an impenetrable bastion for foreigners.

In April last year Peking University sent me to a meeting with two officials from the Confucius Institute – Mr. Ma Jianfei, Deputy Director of Hanban, and Mr. Yang Jincheng, Director of the Division of Teachers, Confucius Institute Headquarters. Hanban is located on Deshengmengwai Street, only 20 minutes by taxi from the Peking University. We met in a café and ordered Pu-erh tea. Both gentlemen were familiar with my essay entitled The End of Translation, in which I attempted to interpret Chinese ‘untranslatables’ such as shengren† and junzi‡ to make them more understandable for foreigners. Hanban is affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Mr. Ma told me that the Ministry wanted to have my works published by a publishing house of my choice. I chose China’s Foreign Language Press, and Mr. Yang became the project’s supervisor.

What would you say has been the biggest achievement of the Confucius Institute over the last few years?

The Confucius Institutes were founded in 2004 as a cultural answer to Germany’s Goethe-Institut (founded in 1951), the UK’s British Council (founded in 1934) and France’s Alliance Française (founded in 1883 but based on a somewhat different model). The success of CIs boils down to sheer numbers: there are already 350 CIs operating around the world, about a hundred more than there are Goethe-Instituts or British Councils. While the global market for British and German culture is saturated, Hanban aims to establish 1,000 CIs. But are the CIs really effective? I am not so sure.

What are the ‘tools’ the Confucius Institutes are using to raise awareness? There are generous scholarships, free materials and well-trained teachers. Is this is not enough?

The CI first wins the hearts and minds of top officials at foreign universities: deans, professors, and administrators. That’s why CIs are associated with foreign universities. That gives China an edge. In addition, any CIs abroad have ‘co-directorships’ – one dean from China and one from another country.

That’s a great strategy. I have seen with my own eyes how Western specialists compete for those prestigious posts of ‘Director of the Confucius Institute for X-land at the University of Y.’ It’s inevitably followed by a promotion at the University of Y from unknown professor to the rank of dean. It is because, when dealing with China, no one takes half measures. The perks are obvious: an affiliation with China’s Ministry of Education, easy access to visas, flights, conferences, and wining and dining. Naturally, the newly appointed deans will introduce their students to their CIs. It’s an authoritarian-style top-down approach.

What are the reasons behind Confucius Institutes’ setbacks in the West?

Frankly, I don’t think the CIs are very successful in promoting Chinese culture. The West brought Western values to China – concepts like democracy, human rights, the rule of law, philosophy, science, economics, capitalism, and communism. That was true soft power. China, on the other hand, has nothing to offer in return. The CIs teach the Chinese language; so students learn the Chinese words for all those Western concepts. They learn how to write democracy in Chinese – ‘minzu zhuyi’.

If the Confucius Institutes were Goethe-Instituts or British Councils, they would be promoting unique Chinese concepts to the West, concepts like wenming, datong, and rujia (‘essence of civilized society,’ ‘great harmony or unity in the society,’ and ‘ability to govern/benevolence of the people’). But no, the CI textbooks give you nice Western-style ‘translations’: civilization, harmony, and Confucianism. That’s a 1:1 Western reproduction!

As long as the Chinese educators haven’t decided on what China should be all about, the CIs themselves will undergo Westernization and suffer defeat. They could open 10,000 more CIs; it would be perceived as something great by the West.

The Confucius Institute has faced criticism from Western media and scholars. For instance, some accuse it of promoting Chinese Communist Party values rather than traditional Confucianism. What can you say about the criticism that CIs face in the West?

As long as China continues to waste billions in renminbi to fund the CIs, all will be fine. What sense does it make to criticize the sponsor? Also, as I said earlier, at the moment, the demand for CIs from foreign universities isn’t ebbing, as academics and politicians obviously want to raise their profile using this ‘Chinese government connection.’

The Institute has been criticized for its direct affiliation with the Chinese government. The very objective of soft power, which is to promote a nation’s image, no longer makes any sense since the public view it as pro-government propaganda. What do you think?

Sure, the CIs are financed by the Chinese government, but Goethe-Instituts are also funded by the German government as British Councils are by the British government. They may appear to be non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but only on paper. That also holds true for many Western NGOs in China, such as Germany’s DAAD [the world’s largest academic exchange service, affiliated with the German government]. I always ask my students, “Why do you think those European states are so influential? The answer is simple: it is because they have invented the system that underlies the society we are living in, and they know how to pull all the strings.”

The CIs will remain pro-government, with their instructions coming from Hanban and the ministries, but so will their Western counterparts in China, promoting Westernization. There is nothing wrong with upholding one’s principles. But they can coexist peacefully. The only way to avoid further politicization, I think, is dialogue, mutual trust, and more transparency. In his political theory Confucius himself taught: “Settle one difficulty, and you keep a hundred away.”

Dr. Tao Ran is professor in the Department of Economics at the Renmin (People’s) University of China, Beijing.

The Confucius Institute is a part of China’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy aimed at promoting the image of the People’s Republic. In today’s globalized world, in choosing products made in a specific country, people are not only guided by the low prices – they also do it because they find it prestigious to buy something specifically made by this given country. I believe that China will be able to improve its international image and strengthen its soft power when the government becomes fully accountable for its decisions both to Chinese society and the international community, not just continuing to spend its money abroad.

Political scientist Dr. Matthew Ferchen is associate professor at Tsinghua University and resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Beijing.

I'm mostly familiar with universities in the US and I would be surprised and appalled if any one of them agreed to limit academic discussion of any issue because a Confucius Institute, or any other funder for that matter, required such censorship as an element of a partnership or funding. If such a request were made it should be rejected outright. But ultimately this is the responsibility of the host university, they need to set the conditions for partnership. But my understanding is that the Confucius Institutes are mostly geared toward teaching Mandarin Chinese and because people around the world are increasingly interested in learning Chinese the Institutes are proving popular. Beyond language teaching, I would be surprised if the Institutes were able to convey a coherent message about "Chinese culture" beyond language, even for instance saying something definitive about Confucianism in China. That is because within China itself there is little agreement on what constitutes core cultural values and this includes agreement on the legacy of Confucius and the many aspects of the Confucian tradition. Probably the best course of action for the Confucius Institutes and their hosts around the world is simply to focus on language training and in that way language can convey important elements of Chinese culture in a more effective way than the Chinese government ever could. And especially in the BRICS countries and other emerging markets, learning Chinese can be a very effective tool of empowerment if it provides people the skills to do business or otherwise engage with China on their own terms. Ultimately I think all efforts by the Chinese government to control and/or censor the meaning of Chinese culture either at home or abroad are and will be self-defeating. The Confucius Institutes should focus on teaching language and neither they nor their hosts should engage in efforts to limit any discussion about any aspect of China.

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