'Malign influence': China's cultural institutes under growing scrutiny

Accused of peddling propaganda and even spying, Chinese cultural institutes are facing increasing resistance around the world, forcing some to close down and Beijing to make changes to their management.

China has set up hundreds of Confucius Institutes — named after the ancient Chinese philosopher — in more than 150 countries in less than two decades, according to the body that oversees them.

President Xi Jinping has called them “a symbol of China’s unremitting efforts for world peace and international cooperation”, and his administration has marked their “optimisation” and further promotion as an important plank of its education policy.

Presented as China’s answer to organisations such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut or the British Council, they offer language lessons and cultural exchange programmes. Unlike most of their Western counterparts, they often sit within universities.

But as relations with China have deteriorated and Xi has taken a more aggressive foreign policy approach, an increasing number of critics in the West say the institutes have become a threat.

In June, Germany’s Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger warned the language centres were being “used by the Communist Party for political ends”.

“If I were a university dean, I wouldn’t have a Confucius Institute,” she said.

The German interior ministry said any cooperation between German universities and Confucius Institutes was “extremely critical security-wise” and risked “insidiously restricting academic freedom”.

Dozens of Confucius Institutes have closed down in the United States, Sweden, France, Australia and Canada in recent years, following similar accusations.

“Chinese efforts have come up against increasing opposition that has halted — or at least slowed down — the establishment of new institutes,” French research institute IRSEM said last year.

– ‘Veto power’ –

The first Confucius Institute opened in South Korea in 2004, and there are now around 550 across the globe.

Beijing provides teachers, teaching materials and generous financing, as well as scholarships for the best students to study at Chinese universities.

Critics say institute teachers come under pressure to spread a censored or distorted version of China’s recent history, with discussions strongly discouraged on subjects such as human rights, the treatment of the Muslim Uyghur people, and the status of Taiwan.

The US-based National Association of Scholars (NAS) said in a June report it had found evidence of some universities signing secret contracts with the Chinese government, granting the authority that oversaw the institutes the “power to hire teachers, select curricula, and exercise veto power over all Confucius Institute programmes and events”.

In France, that authority, called Hanban, began demanding one such institute be integrated into the University of Lyon, suspending an annual subsidy without warning, according to Australian academic Clive Hamilton.

When French educators refused to comply, denouncing “the meddling of a Chinese state-linked structure” in university affairs, the institute closed down in 2013.

In the United States, of 118 Confucius Institutes, 104 have closed or are in the process of doing so, the NAS says.

In 2020, Washington designated the US headquarters of the Chinese educational organisation as a “diplomatic mission” in a bid to hold it to better account.

The US State Department described it as “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses” and in school classrooms.

– ‘Cosmetic’ changes –

In response, Beijing scrapped Hanban, instead creating a Centre for Chinese Language Education and Cooperation.

A non-governmental foundation was set up to oversee the work of the institutes.

The move was intended to dispel “the Western misinterpretation that the organisation served as China’s ideological marketing machine”, an article at the time in the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times quoted analysts as saying.

But Matej Simalcik, of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Slovakia, said these changes were merely “cosmetic”.

“The Chinese government is responding… but not in a way that they would make sure that Confucius Institutes are able to operate independently and not be used for political purposes,” he said.

Confucius Institutes are not on the decline everywhere though.

In African countries where China has increased its sway in recent years by investing in infrastructure and mining, for example, they are still going strong.

In late 2021, there were 61 institutes and 48 “Confucius classrooms” for school-age pupils on the continent, according to the body that oversees them.

French senator Andre Gattolin, who wrote a report on the issue, said the institutes were also seeking to attach themselves to different organisations “to generate economic influence”.

We are seeing a “change of direction towards port areas, military and technology research centres, and business schools”, he told AFP.

Mollie Saltskog, of the Soufan Group think tank, said governments outside China needed to better fund Chinese language courses.

“Governments should work to increase the funding for Chinese-language and educational programmes… to minimise the appeal to take money from Beijing-backed sources,” she told AFP.

“China is a very important country… and we should encourage those interested in learning more about it, without sacrificing our values.”

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