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The Rise and Fall of Confucius Institutes

Jul 13, 2022

The rise, fall, and possible resurrection of the China--backed Confucius Institutes in the United States raises interesting questions. While soft power is preferable to hard power when it comes to jostling for rank and respect among nations, soft power is not without its critics, and sometimes for good reason. But what’s going on with the Confucius Institutes? 

With the rise of virulent anti-China rhetoric during the Trump administration, ideologues such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tom Cotton, and White House advisor Stephen Miller worked themselves up into a frenzied state of paranoia, which led them to shut the door on cultural exchange with China. There was even talk of banning Chinese students from U.S. universities. 

The relatively new and under-appreciated Confucian Institutes were an easy target in such a polarized atmosphere. By the time Biden entered the White House, inheriting a great deal of anti-China baggage from Trump, most Confucian Institutes were being disassociated from or dismantled. 

Indeed, of the 118 Confucius Institutes established in the U.S., all but 14 of them have closed. 

A recently issued report by Flora Yan “After Confucius Institute: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education” offers a scathing view of China’s cultural outreach. The report, published by the unapologetically right-wing National Association of Scholars, not only celebrates the closure of said institutes but warns readers that some of them will be repurposed to function under other names. 

The rise of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. paralleled the rise in China’s economic strength. It also addressed China’s concerns that it wasn’t getting the respect it deserved as a responsible stakeholder in a global system largely predicated on U.S. rules of order. 

As Confucius Institutes proliferated, China seemed to have arrived financially but lagged behind politically. Its shortcomings were attributed to it being a developing nation and a work in progress.. Not only was China not winning respect for the authoritarian aspects of party rule, but it was seen as violating norms and thus earning opprobrium in the eyes of the international community. 

The promotion of Chinese traditional culture offered one way to fill the gap, giving a positive face to a rapidly-evolving, poorly-understood nation in a way that might be more universally appreciated.

Despite the varying and sometimes conflicting views of Confucius historically in China, it’s a name that has a nice ring to it far from home. Even people who know very little about China have heard of Confucius and may even know some of his sayings, or at least know that he had a lot of things to say in the form of “Confucius says…” 

Indeed the modern fortune cookie, invented in Asian American kitchens based on both Japanese and Chinese antecedents, might be construed as a pop-culture manifestation of “Confucius says.” 

The term Confucius Center was a smart move, a cultural coup of sorts, but questions lingered.

To what extent were the state-backed Confucius Institutes functioning as spaces of government influence? Or to extend the culinary idiom, why are the fortune cookies free? Is it because of the political advertising wrapped inside? 

U.S. soft power, the unprecedented global outreach, ranges from innocuous and irreverent to straight-out propaganda. That Hollywood has a long history of “working with” the U.S. government and servicing its ideological aims is old news; but China’s perception of this dynamic has led, on the one hand, to China limiting U.S. film imports and not showing films it does accept, and on the other hand, encouraged the huge outlays of cash and theatre time made for China’s domestic films. 

The U.S. government also has a long history of promoting the instruction of English, college preparation, and lectures on American topics. In many developing nations, public diplomacy was conducted by the United States Information Agency, affiliated first with U.S. intelligence, and after 1999 with the State Department. Successful teaching programs such as Fulbright, Peace Corps, and various American alumni associations possess integrity because they are autonomous and free from government meddling, but they are not without government backing and government-approved flavor. 

The People’s Republic of China is a relative newcomer to this kind of outreach, though it certainly has its precedents in the historic outreach activities of ancestral associations, benevolent societies, and various pro-CCP and pro-Kuomintang associations abroad.

But as for state-backed language institutes, the Confucius Institutes were late-comers, sprouting up mostly in the last two decades, even as the U.S. was shuttering its old cultural centers, USIA-funded language programs, and cutting back on grants and other “unnecessary” expenditures. 

So, the CI are late to the game but not necessarily any more effective or ineffective than similar programs offered by the U.S. government. Students from developing nations used to rally against USIA cultural centers as symbols of imperialism, even though the libraries and course instruction were generally solid. Likewise, in the anti-China political climate of the moment, it is rather easy to take pot-shots at any project sponsored by Beijing that bears more than a whiff of government influence. 

University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins led the charge against Confucian Institutes in his 2013 Nation article, “China U: Confucius Institutes censor political discussions and restrain the free exchange of ideas. Why, then, do American universities sponsor them?” 

It was a singularly influential broadside by an observer with no serious involvement in the China field. Within a few years, over one hundred such institutes were closed down. But Sahlins, a respected anthropologist, seems to be wearing pro-American blinders on this topic. Sure, the fine print of institutional agreements merits study, but does it also need to be stated that language instruction is a desirable thing? 

In this day and age, with global interdependence at a peak despite some frantic efforts at decoupling, it seems neither far-sighted nor wise to stigmatize the teaching of Chinese language and culture, even if some of it is promoted by Beijing for the same kind of reasons that Paris supports Alliance Française and Berlin has its Goethe-Institute and London touts the British Council. 

A great deal of America’s public diplomacy can be traced back to the government, so why is there such a stigma on Confucius Institutes?

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