It’s never really been a secret: Beijing’s Confucius Institutes are a form of physical malware designed to pervert, distort and control the foreign universities, colleges and schools into which they are inserted.
Ostensibly designed to promote understanding of Chinese language and culture in the host institutions, their real purpose is to impose the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history and current affairs on foreign students.
The institutes’ long-term objective — according to discussion at the 2012 annual conference of Hanban, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, which manages the institutes — is to infiltrate the mainstream of universities and colleges abroad in order to influence the broader academic system.
On Wednesday evening, the Toronto District School Board finally woke up to what it was about to do and delayed giving a Confucius Institute control over teaching Mandarin to elementary school students, which was due to start in September. The trustees acted after being deluged with emails from parents who clearly have a better idea of the Confucius Institute’s agenda than do board officials.
Even so, the Confucius Institute website proudly states that it has established 31 of its operations in Canadian colleges, universities and schools. There are now about 400 Confucius Institutes worldwide, plus 600 slightly less intrusive ‘Confucius classrooms’ in secondary and elementary schools.
The Confucius Institutes were started in 2004 as a charm offensive and a form of ‘soft power’ projection by Beijing. The institutes were a response to growing concern among China’s neighbours, the United States and its allies over the rapid rise of Beijing’s economic, political and military power, and the alarmingly assertive attitude that goes with it.
Apologists dismiss claims that the institutes are a dangerous propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party, saying they’re just like other long-established bodies built to foster cultural understanding such as the British Council, Germany’s Goethe-Institut and the Alliance Francaise.
But there are profound differences. While the European bodies are at arm’s-length from government and do not establish branches in foreign educational institutions, the purpose of the Confucius Institutes is to influence what happens on campuses overseas.
At Waterloo University, the institute mobilized students to support Beijing’s suppression of a Tibetan uprising. At McMaster, the institute engaged in activities against the Falun Gong spiritual organization, described as an ‘evil cult’ by Beijing.
According to a presentation at a conference on the security dimensions of China’s growing international influence, organized by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) last year, the management of the Confucius Institutes is closely tied to the Communist Party. The deputy-director of Hanban, the institutes’ governing body, is the party boss within the organization and 16 members of the Hanban governing council are so senior in China’s ruling elite that they are members of the party’s Central Committee. More than that, the director of Hanban is on the 25-member Politburo, second only to the seven-member Standing Committee in China’s hierarchy of power.
Academic freedom is not a concept embraced, or even accepted, by Hanban. Recruits for teaching posts at the overseas institutes are carefully screened for political correctness. Anyone found to have contacts with “illegal organizations” — which includes most religious bodies, political dissidents and many civil society groups — are not hired.
Recruits are generally forbidden to discuss topics the Communist Party considers sensitive, such as its occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang, its dubious claim to ownership of Taiwan and most of the South China Sea, and the massacre of students demanding political reform in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
When Confucius Institute staff do speak out on these topics, it is to promote Beijing’s position. This happened at Waterloo University, where the institute mobilized students to support Beijing’s suppression of a Tibetan uprising. It happened at McMaster University when the institute engaged in activities against the Falun Gong spiritual organization, described as an “evil cult” by Beijing.
There is a growing conviction among many western academics that the presence of a Confucius Institute on their campuses risks undermining a university’s reputation for scholastic rigor and freedom. Not only do the institutes adhere to a list of banned subjects — which includes discussion of China’s military build-up and conflicts within the ruling Communist Party — they also promote a very limited form of Chinese culture. Their insistence on using the Putonghua standardized form of Chinese and simplified characters means that much of the non-Communist Party view of China, past and present, is not easily available to students. Writings from freer societies such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, are usually in the more complex traditional Chinese characters.
Money is another factor. Hanban usually pays half of the cost of the institutes, which can mean the college or university scales back or does not bother establishing other schools of Asian or Chinese studies.
In a recent statement, the American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers jointly demanded that employees of the Confucius Institutes be subject to local employment standards and academic customs, not the dictates of Beijing.
“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” said the statement. The organizations urged colleges and universities to end their agreements with Hanban unless Beijing gives up control over staffing the Confucius Institutes.
Last year’s CSIS conference (held under Chatham House Rules, which means participants cannot be quoted directly) looked at claims that the Confucius Institutes are used by Beijing as centres for espionage. There have been allegations that the institutes are bases for spying on Chinese students, and also for gaining access to research being conducted at the host universities and colleges.
The CSIS conference was told that “although there is no direct evidence to prove a link between the Chinese state and hacking attacks on universities, it is significant that staff and research students doing work on China tend to be the targets of hacking.”
Jonathan Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. He was European bureau chief for the Toronto Star and then Southam News in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In 1989 he was appointed Africa correspondent by Southam News and in 1993 was posted to Hong Kong to cover Asia. For the last few years he has been based in Vancouver, writing international affairs columns for what is now the Postmedia Group. He left the group last year and now writes for a range of newspapers and websites. firstname.lastname@example.org
Re-published with permission.