Several months ago, the University at Albany announced that, like many colleges world-wide, it will soon house a Chinese government run “Confucius Institute.” The event went largely unnoticed. Although I’ve been concerned about the rise of Confucius Institutes for years, I only recently heard. Although university spokespeople are quick to say the new institute is a good thing, a very good thing, in fact, a very, very good thing, there are few details available on what, exactly it will do. Which could be funny except for global reports that Chinese government Confucius Institutes monitor campuses for allegedly anti-Chinese government activities and are an important part of propaganda efforts by the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese Communist Propaganda? Surely, Pete, readers say, you’ve gone nuts. Who, exactly, says these institutes spread foreign Communist propaganda?
The answer is the Chinese government. Li Changchun, a former Chinese propaganda chief and the 5th-highest-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, perhaps the highest decision making body in China, said the Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” This quote is from The Economist magazine and has been accepted as fact by the Wall Street Journal, the Nation magazine, and Inside Higher Education magazine.
I am not inventing this. The University at Albany Confucius Institute is one branch of an international network of Chinese government funded and managed organizations that are considered an important part of the Chinese Communist Party’s international propaganda network and part of its “soft power” initiative, soft power being a term that covers ways to influence and control the behaviors of other nations without military force. Although these institutes are sold abroad as an inexpensive way for colleges to obtain China related classes and speakers, they have raised great concern among China scholars globally. Sometimes called “Trojan Courses,” some colleges in the USA, France, Canada, Japan and elsewhere have closed their Confucius Institutes (CI’s) calling them “a mistake” while the Indian Ministry of External Affairs simply prohibited them from India outright. The American Association of University Professors, an organization with 47,000 members and 500 chapters, has urged US colleges to cease involvement with Confucius Institutes. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, an organization with 68,000 members at 120 universities, has also called for severing all ties with Confucius Institutes.
If these institutes do not spread propaganda then we must ask why China, a nation troubled by great wealth inequity, widespread unemployment of college grads, environmental degradation, and other expensive problems, funds the institutes, and they do. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the past 10 years, in a feat much boasted in the Chinese media, China has established 1,100 Confucius institutes and classrooms in 120 countries, including not just U. Albany but also 450 US grade schools to educate 220,000 American students with official party images of Chinese history, culture and language study. The Chinese government does not just give away things like this without expecting benefit.
The exact agreements between host universities and Confucian Institutes vary but are generally kept secret under a non-disclosure agreement. More prestigious universities get better terms.
The mere presence of Confucius Institutes discourage, at least indirectly, impartial and wide ranging discussion on many issues involving China at host institutions. (This one reason some Canadian and French colleges closed theirs.) To properly explain the issues often avoided would require more space than this op-ed piece but include Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. Forbes magazine and some academics have accused the Cis of being responsible for the lack of attention paid last year on US college campuses to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The issue of Falungong, an outlawed Chinese sect with local members, and the CI’s has become prominent too, particularly in Canada, and expect distortions on Chinese-Muslim internal relations and the South China Seas territorial disputes.
I expressed this fear to a contact at U. Albany close to the project. Although he, at least publicly, disagreed with my views and was positive about the project, he did admit it was important to “be watchful.”
However, the people most trained to recognize problems and biases with the institutes will be prone to self censor themselves, particularly as the Chinese government has been known to refuse visas to critics, including journalists and academics, people whose very career is risked by not getting China visas and therefore extra careful, and the language used by CI’s often masks and hides such controversies from people unfamiliar with China.
The U. Albany Confucius Institute is supposed to sponsor talks on subjects such as the business climate in China. However, a talk organized by the Chinese government on conditions under the Chinese government is similar to a talk organized by the Schenectady Police on Schenectady Police Corruption problems. You might get lucky and hear the truth, but . . .
I admit, I do not like the Chinese Communist Party, the organization that runs the dictatorship of China. Why? Because they kill a lot of people and lie a lot. (Did anyone notice this month’s reports of fake twitter accounts with false names spitting out Chinese government propaganda on the Tibet issue?) Some will say, “Yeah, but the US government lies and kills, too! So?” –well, would these people keep quiet if the Department of Homeland Security or the NSA set up “Jefferson Institutes” to teach its side of US government policies and simultaneously keep tabs on students and professors? Close analogy.
But don’t take my word. Get on your computer. Go to Google (which, BTW, is often blocked and censored by China’s government), get on the internet (again much censored in China by something called “the Great Firewall of China”), and do your own research on Confucius Institutes. You might start with http://www.chinafile.com/Debate-Over-Confucius-Institutes . Look at all sides of the issue. Then ask yourself if it’s a good thing that one exists by the side of I-90.