Confucius Institute (CI) is the brand name of a controversial Chinese language and culture programme that was initiated and promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2004. The Institutes have since been adopted by more than 1,700 foreign educational institutions in 162 countries and regions, 29 of them are in the UK. Between 2006 and 2016, the Communist regime is believed to have spent by the lowest estimate US$2.17 billion maintaining the CIs.
Li Changchun, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee in charge of the Communist Party’s propaganda and ideology, stated in 2007 that Confucius Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad…It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical,” Li announced at a speech in Beijing in 2011.
The historical confrontation between the two conflicting ideologies – Confucianism and Marxism-Maoism – raises a question about the real agenda behind the CCP’s efforts to utilise the name of Confucius to export and promote the Chinese communist ideology, culture, and lifestyle.
The policy of criticising Confucius was prominent during the 1911 revolution in China and was continued by the Communist state after its establishment in 1949. Mao wrote in On New Democracy(1940), “All those who advocate the worship of Confucius, the study of the Confucian canon, the old ethical code and the old ideas” are “in opposition to the new culture and new ideas.” Mao’s attitude has been perpetuated by his successors, including Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and current General Secretary Xi Jinping.
The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies report titled China-UK Relations: Where to Draw the Border Between Influence and Interference? says the following about the Confucius Institutes:
“The main objections to them are: that they are foreign government entities (they are run by and part-funded by the Hanban, an organisation under the Ministry of Education, which is ultimately controlled by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, making them different from the British Council or Institut Français) set up on university campuses in buildings paid for by the universities.”
Hanban’s charter stipulates that “CIs must obey Chinese law, in theory advocating extra-territoriality; that they censor discussion on China by not allowing events, speakers or textbooks to refer to matters deemed sensitive by the Party; that contracts and financial arrangements with their hosts are not openly available for scrutiny; and that they play a part in universities’ China Studies faculties beyond teaching language and culture,” the report says.
Marshall Sahlins, a retired University of Chicago anthropologist and author of the 2014 pamphlet Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, reports that each Confucius Institute is financed and subsidized with “$100,000…in start up costs provided by Hanban, with annual payments of the like over a five-year period, and instruction subsidized as well, including the air fares and salaries of the teachers provided from China.”
“Hanban also agrees to send textbooks, videos, and other classroom materials for these courses—materials that are often welcome in institutions without an important China studies program of their own.”
According to Sahlins’s report, the Chinese teachers are thoroughly vetted by Hanban. Teachers are also explicitly instructed to tow Beijing’s line on controversial political questions. There can be no discussion whatsoever of human rights in China, or the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sahlins found that should a student raise an uncomfortable question about, for example, the political status of Tibet, Hanban’s instructors are ordered to refocus the discussion on a different, more innocuous topic such as Tibet’s natural beauty or indigenous cultural practices, which might seem ironic considering that the CCP spent decades destroying religious, cultural and ethnic life of Tibet.
Ethan Epstein, an associate editor of the Weekly Standard wrote in his article that a student, who was considering studying abroad in China, asked about the air pollution there. The response from the Confucius faculty was that the reports of pollution were “misinformation promoted in the U.S. media.”
Sonia Zhao, a Chinese national, was dispatched by Hanban to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2010 to teach Chinese language. Zhao defected a year into her tenure. Zhao said she was forced to disguise her practice of Falun Gong, traditional Chinese energy and self-improvement meditative practice, that became the CCP’s top target of persecution when in 1999 former General Secretary Jiang Zemin gave the order to eradicate both the practice and its adherents.
Her employment contract with Hanban explicitly stated that she was “not allowed to join ‘illegal organizations’ such as Falun Gong,” she said. This kind of open religious discrimination led to the McMaster University, in light of this disclosure, subsequently shutting its Confucius Institute in 2013, citing the institute’s ‘hiring practices’.
In 2008, a court in Israel found that Tel Aviv University, home to a Confucius Institute, had illegitimately closed an art exhibition on Falun Gong because of Chinese government pressure. A year later, North Carolina State University, also host to a Confucius Institute, scuttled a planned appearance by the Dalai Lama for fear of backlash from the Chinese government.
The numerous reports that China is using the institutes to promote its communist ideology across the world have been increasingly, and correctly, seen as a threat to a free democratic society.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) passed a resolution in December 2013 to end all ties with Confucius Institutes due to its strong influence by the CCP. James Turk, Executive Director of CAUT, said, “Confucius Institutes are essentially political arms of the Chinese government.” “Simply put, Confucius Institutes are owned and operated by an authoritarian government and beholden to its politics.”
“In agreeing to host Confucius Institutes, Canadian universities and colleges are compromising their own integrity by allowing the Chinese Language Council International to have a voice in a number of academic matters, such as curriculum, texts, and topics of class discussion,” explained Turk. “Such interference is a fundamental violation of academic freedom.”
In the 2019 report titled China’s Confucius Institutes Fiona Bruce MP, the Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission stated: “There are very serious questions about the influence Confucius Institutes may wield at British universities and schools. While we welcome and encourage language teaching and cultural exchange, we believe a review is necessary to assess whether Confucius Institutes represent a threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression, other basic rights and indeed national security.”
“We also believe it is right to have an assessment to ensure that the curriculum taught in Confucius Institutes is balanced, independent, holistic and comprehensive, and measures to require transparency and accountability in any future agreements between British institutions and Confucius Institutes,” she continued.
Growing world-wide public awareness of the Confucius Institutes’ direct connection to the CCP in the last few years had significantly compromised the chances of the ubiquitous academic infiltration that CIs appear to have been designed to establish around the globe. Many countries became aware of the duplicitous nature of this organisation and saw to it that the CIs’ presence on the campuses was terminated.
In April 2020 Sweden closed its last remaining Confucius Institute. Göran Lindblad, former Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and a former Swedish Parliament member, explained the dangers of the Confucius Institutes:
“The main purpose [of Confucius Institutes] is to indoctrinate people and gather information for the totalitarian regime. These are the two main goals that are not spoken. And with budgets reduced, a lot of universities have been interested in having Confucius Institutes paying for the education in Chinese language, Chinese culture, etc. Same in the 1930s with Mussolini’s language institutes…”
“These Confucius Institutes are integrated into the universities. So there is an excellent opportunity to do infiltration work, also spying, indoctrinating the students in the communist thinking. And all of the teachers from the Confucius Institutes are of course controlled from Beijing… The CCP controls the Confucius Institutes”.
In July 2020 the US Senate unanimously passed the Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States (CONFUCIUS) Act. “The Chinese Communist Party has made nests for its propaganda on college campuses all over our country. Confucius Institutes are threatening academic liberty and free speech without shame, and too many American schools have fallen victim to the political con. It’s time to end Communist China’s deceitful attacks on democratic freedoms by giving power back to American students and educators,” said Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) who introduced the legislation.
In September 2020, the centre-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) of Germany said that it would introduce a motion to end German universities’ collaboration with the 19 Confucius Institutes throughout the country.
The motion, written by Bundestag member Jens Brandenburg, proposes to end state subsidies to Confucius Institutes and set up a commission to investigate how the Chinese government may be influencing how Chinese and German academics teach and research.
To overcome the legislative blowback the CCP in July of this year established the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation under the Education Ministry to replace Hanban and, at least officially, disarticulated the CIs from the communist state. The fact that the centre’s director, Ma Jianfei, used to serve as a deputy director of Hanban is indicative of the purely formalistic nature of this decoupling.
“The changing of new management and governing bodies will not change the close ties between the CI program and the CCP/PRC, because virtually everything and everyone in China is under tight control of the CCP,” said Doris Liu, documentary filmmaker and journalist; her In the Name of Confucius (inthenameofconfuciusmovie.com) is the first documentary film exposing the growing global controversies surrounding the Chinese government’s multi-billion dollar Confucius Institute.
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name,” said Confucius. Perhaps it is time for us to call the Confucius Institutes in the United Kingdom, as well as everywhere else, by their proper name – ‘CCP’s Propaganda and Academia Infiltration Device’?