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The Trojan Horse Dilemma of the Confucius Institute

Nov 13, 2017


China’s rise in the international theatre has been cause for bouts of nervousness among its neighboring countries and within the U.S. and European corridors of power. As U.S. Sinologist David Shambaugh argues, how China uses its power on the global scene and how it shapes future global affairs will be “the grand strategic questions of our era.” China’s rise has certainly peaked in the economic and military field, yet its bargaining power as a trusted and influential player on the global stage remains weak.

The massive Confucius Institute Project undertaken by Hanban, or the Office of Chinese Language Council International, has been seen as a manifestation of China’s power and its “Dream” of regaining its mantle as a global power. Alternatively, it has served as an active medium for cultural diplomacy, behind the front of promoting the Chinese language and cultural dissemination, with the purpose of transforming opinions and perceptions on “China’s Rise.”

The growing influence of these Confucius Institutes on American university campuses (the United States houses the largest number of these establishments, with more than a hundred) has been met with a large degree of alarm from the scholarly community. The National Association of Scholars and the American Association of University Professors have called for either the reformation or shut down of these institutes, in order to protect the independence and integrity of American universities. Many universities have followed suit, with the University of Chicago and Penn State University closing the operations of their Confucius Institutes, with the pressure mounting on other campuses to do the same.

These Confucius Institutes are not the first of their kind. France’s Alliance Francaise, the UK’s British Council and Germany’s Goethe’s Institutes have been in existence for several decades and serve as mediums of cultural diplomacy, similar to the way the Confucius Institutes claim to do so. However, the Confucius Institute Project is under such intense scrutiny primarily because, unlike the other educational/cultural establishments, Confucius Institutes are entwined deeply within the propaganda and political machinations of the Chinese state. The Hanban, which oversees these institutes, although termed as non-governmental and non-profit, is administered under the Chinese Ministry of Education, with Vice Premier Liu Yandong as its President. With a budget of more than 200 million dollars a year and more than 400 Confucius Institutes set up all over the world (with a higher number in regions with lower public approval of China), the Hanban has turned into one of China’s most influential bodies in foreign cultural diplomacy.

These institutes are run as a partnership between the foreign university and Hanban, with the latter providing the initial set-up funds as well as teachers and study materials. This is where one of the core tensions arises. Since every study material is approved by the Ministry, there is a growing concern that such materials hide Chinese state propaganda, showcasing the communist “One Party” system in a favorable light and deflecting all questions about China’s security issues, such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights.

The regulations that state that the Confucius Institutes will not be used for any purpose that infringes Chinese law is controversial, since the degree of censorship and control is much higher than it is in western societies. Therefore the case of Sonia Zhao, a former teacher at the Confucius Institute in McMaster University in Hamilton, who claimed that all teachers had to sign an agreement to not to practice Falun Gong before joining their positions. She also stated that the teachers were told to deflect any questions that arose in the classrooms about sensitive issues, such as Taiwan and Tibet, and to have the official regime narrative ready if they were unable to do so.  

Criticism has grown from American scholars who see the Confucius Institutes as a “Trojan Horse” in their campuses: as the propagation of Chinese state interests disguised under the cloak of language and cultural education. Prof. Robert Barnett of Columbia University (which has received $1 million over five years from Hanban for the establishment of a Confucius Institute on their campus) states that the Chinese government wants more than just a presence on campus: it wants a presence on the faculty and in the teaching departments.

China believes that the international community is dominated by Western culture, ideology and languages. This explains the emphasis on “soft power” and cultural diplomacy by former Chinese leader Hu Jintao and the current Premier Xi, who see China’s rise as implicitly linked to a rise in its ability to influence the public and governments of other countries. The fanfare over the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2008 Shanghai World Expo, the Silk Route Project and the successful bid for the 2022 Olympics are attempts by China to raise its global profile while throwing a cover over its less favorable track record of human rights violations, censorship and justice issues.

The Confucius Institutes are part of this vision of strengthening China’s geo-political influence on the international system, through developing an audience that is competent in its understanding of Chinese culture and linguistics. In the case of the U.S., according to the recent Pew Global Center survey, 47 percent of the American public do not view China in a favorable light and without surprise, the U.S. has the most Confucius Institutes by far. What is of interest is that Confucius was reviled during the Mao regime but has now become the face of this project, since the former is seen in a much better light than say a “Mao Institute” would be.

It is too soon to gauge the full extent of the impact Confucius Institutes have had on the American intellectual community, as many of the universities which house these institutes, such as Columbia and Stanford University, are too big to have academic terms, such as restrictions on classroom discussions or events such as seminars, dictated to them. What one cannot ignore is the effort the Chinese state has put into these institutes to try and realize its public diplomatic goals and create a “favorable environment” within the U.S. public sphere. The fears of the academic community over the “Trojan Horse” threat of these institutes cannot be simply ignored, and a long-term study of the Confucius Institutes and the path they take in the future is necessary. 


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