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China U. | The Nation

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China U.

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Harper Library, University of Chicago

Because Confucius Institutes depend on a policy of what is not said, which originates in the inner circles of the Chinese government and is largely implemented through self-censorship, direct evidence of restraints on academic discourse is not easy to come by. What little that is publicly known must be a small fraction of what is actually practiced. There exists, however, a body of evidence that is all the more revelatory because it consists of the subterfuges practiced by Hanban to conceal policies that are objectionable by the common standards of scholarly knowledge and academic freedom in American universities and most others worldwide. What Beijing learned, for example, was to drop from early agreements the clause requiring American institutions to accept the PRC’s “one China policy,” according to which Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic. However, the description of Taiwan as “China’s largest island” on Hanban’s website remains.

About the Author

Marshall Sahlins
Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of...

Until quite recently, the official English website of Hanban, in the section listing the requirements for volunteer overseas Chinese teachers, specified that applicants should have “no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations and no criminal record.” After a dustup with a Canadian university about a Chinese teacher who did belong to the spiritual movement, the site now states: “Applicants shall declare to abide by Chinese laws and not to endanger the state security of China, harm public interests or disrupt public order”—which, as a set of qualifications for teaching in a North American university, seems bad enough. In the matter of teachers’ qualifications, Professor Liu Xiaobo, for instance, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, could not be an instructor at a Confucius Institute because he has a criminal record: he is serving an eleven-year sentence in China at present for advocating human rights and democratic reforms.

According to The Epoch Times, a video about the Korean War titled “The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” was recently withdrawn from the Hanban website. Among other historical claims, the video declares that the Chinese were provoked into entering the war because the United States had bombed Chinese villages near the Korean border, and had manipulated the UN Security Council into passing a resolution that enabled American troops to expand aggression against Korea. It seems that the page with the video feed was deleted on June 11, 2012, the day after Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics sent the link to faculty colleagues who were just then debating the teaching materials of the Confucius Institute, which was established there in 2007. 

Because of these questionable practices of academic discourse, the Confucius Institute’s classroom program is not wanted in the public primary and secondary schools of New South Wales, Australia. In July 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a petition with more than 4,000 signatures had been tabled in the New South Wales Parliament calling for the state government to remove the Confucius Institute classrooms from a number of public schools. “The government,” the story said, “has confirmed that controversial topics, including the Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s human rights record, will not be discussed in the program…. The petition states that foreign governments should not determine what is taught in NSW schools and that the curriculum should be free of propaganda.” Then, in October 2011, a Greens MP, Jamie Parker, introduced another such petition with some 10,000 signatures. Parker’s speech in support of the petition rehearsed many essentials of a critique that could be voiced wherever Confucius Institutes have been established: 

The NSW government has admitted that topics sensitive to the Chinese government, including Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong and human rights violations, would not be included in these classes…. The Greens welcome the teaching of Chinese language and culture, however we must be cautious of foreign government influence within our state schools. These classes are very different to other international programs such as Alliance Française. 

Two incidents involving Confucius Institutes at Canadian universities, McMaster and Waterloo, echo these concerns while also indicating some of the larger intellectual and legal implications of the CI program. This year, McMaster terminated its agreement with the program following a complaint of discriminatory hiring filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by a CI instructor against the university. The complaint was lodged by Sonia Zhao, a teacher from China who alleged that McMaster was “giving legitimation to discrimination” because the CI contract that enabled her to work at the university required her to conceal her belief in Falun Gong. The Toronto Globe and Mail obtained a copy of Zhao’s contract, which was signed in China and included the provision that teachers “are not allowed to join illegal organizations such as Falun Gong.” In 2012, a year after coming to Canada, Zhao recounted not only that she had hidden her adherence to Falun Gong from the Chinese authorities, but also how the Chinese authorities hide the Falun Gong from CI classrooms. Interviewed in connection with her case, she said, “If my students asked me about Tibet or about other sensitive topics, I should have the right to…express my opinion…. During my training in Beijing they do tell us: ‘Don’t talk about this. If the student insists, you just try to change the topic or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer.’”

Zhao’s case against McMaster went to mediation. After McMaster broke its agreement with CI, the assistant vice president of public and governmental relations explained, “We have a very clear direction on building an inclusive community, respect for diversity, respect for individual views, and ability to speak about those.” That’s a noble position, but it was undermined by the university’s failure to perform its due diligence: the Falun Gong proscription had been on the Hanban website for some time before McMaster signed on with CI. And note the implication of the affair: a Canadian university had to take legal responsibility for promulgating the political agenda of the People’s Republic of China.

A different controversy erupted at the University of Waterloo, where, as noted earlier, the head of the college that houses the local CI professed no knowledge of the contracts that Chinese teachers sign and no ability to control their terms. Perhaps that explains the militant action of the Chinese director of the CI in defending the PRC’s actions in Tibet and mobilizing her students to do likewise. The director, Yan Li, was previously a reporter with Xinhua, the official news agency of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2008, when the PRC put down a Tibetan uprising, she rallied students of the Waterloo Confucius Institute to “work together to fight with Canadian media,” which was reporting the regime’s heavy-handed action. Yan Li took class time to recount her version of Tibetan history and the current situation, using a map that showed Tibet clearly inside China. Thereupon the students launched a campaign against the Canadian media, protesting against newspapers, TV stations and online coverage they claimed was biased in favor of the Tibetans. The campaign succeeded to the extent that one TV station publicly apologized for its presentation of the conflict. 

For the University of Manitoba, the creation of political impediments by the Chinese government to the free discussion in Canada of topics controversial in China is the reason it has not permitted a Confucius Institute on campus. Said Terry Russell, a professor of Asian studies at Manitoba, “They have no particular interest in what we would consider critical inquiry or academic freedom…. We didn’t see how you could reconcile inviting the Chinese government, which the Confucius Institute is basically an agent of, to come on campus and present programs that wouldn’t ever actually talk about human rights in China except according to the official Beijing line.”

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