Confucius institutes & the threat to shut them down

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Sultan M Hali

CONFUCIUS Institutes are public educational partnerships between colleges and universities in China and colleges and universities in other countries; the partnerships are funded and arranged in part by Hanban (the Office of Chinese Language Council International), which is itself affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. The aim of the program is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges. The Confucius Institute program began in 2004. The institutes operate in co-operation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the world, and financing is shared between Hanban and the host institutions. The related Confucius Classroom program partners with local secondary schools or school districts to provide teachers and instructional material
The operation of the Confucius Institutes is similar to the British Council run by the UK, Portugal’s Instituto Camões, France’s Alliance Française, Italy’s Società Dante Alighieri, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, Germany’s Goethe-Instituto and Iran’s Khana-e-Farhang—several of them named for an iconic cultural figure identified with that country, as Confucius is identified with China. On 13 August 2020, the United States Department of State designated the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in the US as a “foreign mission” of China. With growing animosity towards China, last week, in a recent radio programme, US Secretary of State Pompeo threatened again to shut down all Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. He also said that Confucius Institute operators will not gain visas to enter the United States.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, when asked to comment on the development, stated that Confucius Institutes serve as a bridge for people around the world to learn the Chinese language, understand China, and strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and other countries. Confucius Institutes in the US are established based on voluntary applications from US universities under the principles of mutual respect, friendly consultations, equality and mutual benefit. They follow open and transparent operation and management models, strictly abide by local laws and various rules and regulations of the universities. They have made immense contributions to promoting people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and the United States, thus widely welcomed by the US universities and the American people.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry official opined that some US politicians, out of ideological bias and political expediency, deliberately undermined the cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation between China and the United States by discrediting Confucius Institutes and interfering with their normal operations. This goes against the public opinion of the two countries and will definitely be rejected by the righteous people in the United States. Such an action of barring the cultural exchanges between the US and China will only widen the chasm between them and erode mutual trust. Unfortunately, because of the ongoing trade war between the US and China, a benign institution like the Confucius Institute is being targeted, casting aspersions on it of industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese abroad and propaganda. Criticisms of the institutes have included administrative concerns about finance, academic viability, legal issues and relations with the Chinese partner university, as well as broader concerns about improper influence over teaching and research.
Controversy regarding Confucius Institutes in the US, Australian and Canadian press includes criticism that unlike other governments’ language and culture promotion organizations, the Confucius Institutes operate within established universities, colleges and secondary schools around the world, providing funding, teachers and educational material. This has raised concerns over their influence on academic freedom and concerns that the institutes present a selective and politicized view of China as a means of advancing the country’s soft power internationally.
Underlying such opposition is concern by professors that a Confucius Institute would interfere with academic freedom and be able to pressure the university to censor speech on topics the Communist Party objects to. Ironically, any accusation of widespread interference of academic freedom has yet to be substantiated. An article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education”, a Washington DC based newspaper, asserts that there is little evidence of meddling from China. After interviewing Chinese scholars, journalists and CI Directors, a writer for “The Diplomat”, another Washington DC based international online magazine also found little support for the concern that Confucius Institutes would serve as propaganda vehicles. An article in “The New York Times” quotes Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, saying that the key issue is academic independence. “Once you have a Confucius Institute on campus, you have a second source of opinions and authority that is ultimately answerable to the Chinese Communist Party and which is not subject to scholarly review.”
The fact is that Confucius Institutes promote and teach Chinese culture and language around the world. They develop Chinese language courses, train teachers, hold the HSK Examination (Chinese proficiency test), host cultural and artistic presentations and provide information about contemporary China. The Chinese Government shares the burden of funding Confucius Institutes with host universities, and takes a hands-off approach to management. The institutes function independently within the guidelines established by Hanban and the Confucius Institute Headquarters. In addition to their local-partner university, Confucius Institutes operate in co-operation with a Chinese partner university. Many institutes are governed by a board which is composed of several members from the Chinese partner school, with the remaining members affiliated with the local-partner university. At most institutes, the Director is appointed by the local partner university. Thus, Confucius Institutes are working to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.

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