Why the fuss over Confucius Institutes?

Some say Beijing-funded language and culture schools fly in the face of academic freedom

Opening of the Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College

Photo by lubright/Flikr

Admittedly, it does seem worrisome. Within the past decade, a dozen Confucius Institutes, Chinese language and culture schools funded by the Communist government in Beijing, have popped up on Canadian college and university campuses, trumpeting programs to “improve understanding” of China, and to teach Mandarin.

Then, in 2011, as the Globe and Mail reported recently, a teacher dispatched from China to teach at the Confucius Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. quit her post and filed for refugee status. The newspaper reported that the teacher, a follower of China’s repressed Falun Gong movement named Sonia Zhao, was unable to express her political or religious beliefs as a Confucius Institute teacher—it was prohibited in her job contract, which outlaws teachers with Falun Gong affiliations. In her formal complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Zhao accused McMaster of “giving legitimization to discrimination.”

It’s hardly the first time Confucius Institutes—of which there more than 320 worldwide—have been cast in an unfavourable light. Funded by Hanban, a branch of China’s education ministry, the institutes have been framed as propaganda tools that export Beijing’s tightly controlled worldview for international consumption, limiting student discussion of Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the status of ethnic and religious minorities in China. Last summer, human rights lawyer Clive Ansley told the Epoch Times that Confucius Institutes, in banning teachers with ties to the Falun Gong, are breaking “all human rights codes in Canada.”

In June 2011, the University of Manitoba turned down the opportunity to open one on its campus. UBC has done the same. All this begs the question: are Canadian schools, generally cash-strapped and faced with rising interest in Asia and its languages, wrong to open their arms to subsidized language instruction from Chinese-funded institutions with curricula shaped in Beijing?

It should be noted that Confucius Institutes don’t overtly teach politics. At first glean, their focus is quite banal. The Confucius Institute in Quebec for example, housed at Montreal’s Dawson College and the University of Sherbrooke, advertizes itself as a place to learn Mandarin, Chinese calligraphy, painting and Tai Chi. Much like Germany’s Goethe Institut, France’s Alliance Française and the UK’s British Council, Confucius Institutes are an expression of China’s push for “soft power,” wherein the People’s Republic has the cultural authority to wield further influence outside its borders.

But Confucius Institutes seem to garner more attention than other international culture and language schools. Yeun Pau Woo, President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation in Vancouver, says the reason could be that they come from an authoritarian country with which Canadians are generally less familiar than some European nations. “The discomfort over different political and social systems adds to the suspicion and contributes to this controversy,” says Woo.

He says that, since Confucius Institute instructors often teach with materials generated from Beijing, students are likely to be exposed to a China-produced worldview. This is little cause for concern for Woo, given the culture of intellectual freedom at Canadian universities and colleges, where Confucius Institutes are housed. “The Confucius Institutes operate in that same cauldron of intellectual contest,” he says. “While strong views, maybe even biased and incorrect views, may be put forward from time to time, they can and will be challenged.”

Sheila Young, director of Brock International at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., calls the criticism of Confucius Institutes “unfortunate.” Since opening its Confucius Institute in 2010, Young says some people have criticized the university for importing Chinese principles of education to Canada. She feels the criticism is unfounded and overblown. “I think (the Confucius Institute) is quite a positive thing in terms of raising awareness of Chinese culture and language,” Young says.

When asked about the alleged deficit of intellectual freedom at some Confucius Institutes, Young says that all the instructors she’s interacted with from the school at Brock have been willing to broach any topic. “We’re not aware of that restriction,” she says.

But even if Confucius Institutes are largely innocuous, the fact remains that they are a branch of an authoritarian government, and that in their operations across the globe, they carry elements of that authoritarianism—such as the contractual exclusion of Falun Gong ties—alongside quality Mandarin instruction. For Woo, it is the latter feature that Canadians should focus on. “Language instruction always comes with values and with ideologies and messages,” he says, “but in the Canadian context, where academic freedom and intellectual expression are highly prized . . . an institution that can provide high-quality language instruction should be embraced.”


Why the fuss over Confucius Institutes?

  1. Firstly, the Chinese s at odds with the international one. You only have to look at the Syria situation. They also hold different views on human rights, for them it is not important to honour their signing the Human Rights Declaration etc. They see oppression and brutality as a way of controlling the masses. They see programming of the citizens minds from an early age as acceptable. Propaganda is normal to them, a way to shape the thinking until the point where the truth is hidden, and most fall into Party thinking. Today they are in migration overload, trying claim all that they suppose is theirs. But the most insidious aspect is to put their twisted ideology to the rest of the world and thereby gain support and acceptance. They are lucky to be the position of relative wealth, to be able to get away diplomatically with their encroachment, if they were not in that position then I would guess they would be being pushed aside and targeted wholeheartedly for their horrendous human rights abuses. But it is still the case, and yet one is happy to overlook the ‘downside’ for the sake of selfish gain. The list of atrocities continues to grow, day by day. Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians, but the larger group of prisoners of conscience in the world today, Falun Gong. The CCP have chosen to persecute devoutly peaceful people who follow Truth, Compassion and Tolerance. To torture them to deaths in thousands of cases, to harvest organs for profit from live Falun Gong adherents. Ideologically what is this saying? That to persecute good people is ok? The state condones it. Is this the sort of people you want educating your children? Is this the message to give to innocent youngsters. How will the future be if they think it’s ok to do these things. You cannot change th facts, you have to face them, but the demon that fools you is money, or some other personal gain. But think about it, the more legitimacy the CCP and China gets in its current state, the more you are a part of their atrocities. You are supporting their genocide, murder, oppression and evil. Is that what you want? Confucius Institutes are as they themselves admitted, Softpower. The propaganda dept. has links to them. Are you really that naive and foolish? Or is it you wish to bury your head in the sand?
    Even on the point off culture, you are missing the trick. Have you forgotten the so called Great Cultural Revolution? The CCP used culture to spread its ideology and brainwash the people. Nothing has changed in their way of working. The Chinese history books have been rewritten, adapted to suit their thinking and cause. So what ‘culture’ are you getting? Do you know? Do you presume they are the experts? Foolish.
    Before getting into bed with the CCP watch or read the ‘9 Commentaries on The Communist Party’, it will wake you to reality.

  2. So in Mr. Woo’s view, kids are smart enough to know when they are being taught propaganda and to challenge it. Well then, let’s just auction off the whole curriculum to the highest bidders. Environmental studies brought to you by Exxon Mobile. Middle East politics sponsored by Iran. Sounds great. Kids are smart–they’ll challenge whatever isn’t right (even if Confucius instructors are taught by Beijing not to allow such debate, which Sonia Zhao says is the case, according to the Globe article). We’ve been on the wrong track with this academic independence stuff. With interested parties willing to pay cash we’ll have much better funded programs in all these important areas. Brilliant!