While many Chinese are still immersing themselves in the joy of the seven-day National Day holiday, China is going through perhaps its toughest birthday. Domestically, protests by Hong Kong pro-democracy groups see no signs of reconciliation while anger and blame from Hong Kong people are accumulating. Overseas, campaigns to kick out China’s self-proud Confucius Institute are spreading throughout North America.
On October 1 (PST), when China was celebrating its 65th anniversary, a Toronto District School Board committee—Canada’s largest school board—voted to terminate China’s Confucius Institute programs, with all but one member on the committee against the termination motion. On the exact same day, the Pennsylvania State University announced that it would close its on-campus Institute because of an apparent disagreement over Chinese government controls.
The closure of the Pennsylvania State University branch—one of 465 Confucius Institutes around the world designed to project China’s soft-power and to promote Chinese language and culture—came days after the University of Chicago announced its refusal to renew the five-year contract with its Institute, marking Pennsylvania State University the second major U.S. research university to cut times with the Confucius Institute program, an international chain of academic centres run by the Chinese government.
While the scrutiny of Confucius Institutes is nothing new, the current shutdown wave creates much more awkwardness for China as its President Xi Jinping has just made a supportive speech of Confucius Institute at its 10th anniversary.
But perhaps what embarrasses President Xi the most is not criticism by foreigners or its setback in soft-power projection, but the fact that such criticism is commonly shared by its people from within.
“I support U.S. (institutes’) decision to close the Confucius Institute. Why would I do so when I myself am learning Chinese traditional cultures? That is because what these Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes are promoting is not traditional Chinese culture at all; in essence, it is just propaganda of Marxism-Leninism ideology. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, some Chinese netizen expressed his understandings, if not welcome, for such shutdowns.
It echoes oversea institutes’ concerns that Confucius Institutes might threaten academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad and promote the political aims of China’s ruling Communist Party.
In the case of University of Chicago, Xu Lin, the head of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, also called Hanban, was quoted by an article published by Jiefang Daily, the Party newspaper for the Shanghai Committee of the CCP, as suggesting that University officials had folded in negotiations over renewing the Institute’s campus branch.
The newspaper said that Xu wrote a letter to the college president containing one sentence: “If your school has made the decision it wants to pull out, then I agree.” She said the same thing in a phone call to the university’s representative in Beijing, the report said. “That attitude of hers made the other side anxious, and they quickly replied that they’d continued to operate the Confucius Institute,” the report said.
Xu was also at the centre of another international drama in July 2014 when she ordered pages torn out from the main conference program of a major European Sinology association conference in Portugal, the night before the conference, to remove any reference to Taiwan institutions.
Amid all these controversies, one Chinese user wrote on his Weibo. “The more one tries to hide, the more one is exposed. [Confucius Institutes] are all about politics propaganda in the disguise of culture promotion. They will end up as political tools and have nothing else to do with academics. I made such comment when the first [Confucius Institute] was set up and I am proven right by now.”
While skepticism against the hidden purpose of the Confucius Institute program is prevalent, Chinese officials, on the other hand, seem quite open about their agenda. Li Changchun, former propaganda chief of the CCP, as quoted by The Economist as describing he Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”. To some, the idea of the CCP’s promoting Confucianism is self-contradictory in itself.
“It is our Party who has long been against Confucianism.” mocked one Weibo user, who then referred to Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing’s infamous “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign in 1973. Mao provoked public discussions on criticizing Confucius and Confucianism and on interpreting Chinese history within a Maoist theoretical perspective. The campaign, lasted till the end of Cultural Revolution, was used as a political tool by the Gang of Four and as a venue to construct Maoist political theories.
For others, however, it is not the goal, be it cultural or political, but the means of mass-establishing the Confucius Institutes that matters.
According to a report, for every Confucius Institute, Chines Hanban will provide up to 100,000 USD as initial start-up funding. The maintenance fee will be evenly divided by Hanban and the hosting institute. Confucius Institutes not only offers courses on language, culture, or Tai Chi, but also provide subsidized “Trips to China”. It also costs 60,000 USD for each Confucius Classroom, a program designed for oversea primary and secondary schools.
In the year of 2009 alone, Chinese government poured nearly 145 million USD into the Confucius Institute program. But the Chinese government’s passion has never been intimidated by the high cost—averagely one Confucius Institute is set up somewhere in the world every six day.
This grand figure, however, has touched the nerve of some Chinese.
“Hundreds of thousands of Chinese children still can’t afford to go to school. In remote areas, there is no classroom for schools or textbooks for students. [The Confucius Institute program,] however, provides large fundings for rich American students. Why doesn’t the government care to invest in our flowers of the motherland (a phrase commonly used in China to refer to the younger generation)?” asked one commentator.
Cai Shenkun, a columnist and prolific blogger in China, criticized Confucius Institutes in his articles that “The Project Hope has fundraised only 500,000 USD in 20 years. Our government, however, sent an amount of money much more than that for the Project Hope to oversea to establish institutes. What a shame.” The Project Hope, or Xiwang Gongcheng, is a Chinese public service project organized by the China Youth Development Foundation and the Communist Youth League Central Committee with an aim to bring schools into poverty-stricken rural areas of China, to help children whose families are too poor to afford it to complete elementary school education.
But Cai, like many other, is more infuriated by the untransparent over-spending, if not corruption, behind the Confucius Institute program. In 2010, a company won the bid for the Confucius Institute Online project at the amount of 35.2 million yuan (5.73 million USD), but it turns out that the owner of the company is the Deputy Director General of Hangban himself.
“Not only the Confucius Institute doesn’t charge [U.S. students] tuition fee, it offers them subsidiaries. Where does the money come from? Are they paid by Chinese taxpayers? Explanations have to be addressed to China’s 1.3 billion taxpayers.” asked one Weibo user, who identified himself as a lawyer in Chongqing, southwest city in China. ？“It is a good thing (to shut down Confucius Institutes).” concluded an Chinese user.
None of these were reflected in President Xi’s letter written to mark the newly-dubbed “Confucius Institute Day” few days ago, in which he optimistically remarked “Confucius Institutes belong to China and the world as well” and called for “joint efforts to promote civilization among mankind, enhance people’s heart-to-heart communication and create a brighter future for mankind together”.
While the Confucius Institutes are the CCP’s attempt to project and enhance China’s major soft power, it might well be better for them to foster a consensual acceptance of the Party agenda and acknowledgement of Confucianism in the backyard first.