We were sitting in his office, Ted Foss and I, on the third floor of Judd Hall at the University of Chicago. Foss is the associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies, a classic area studies program that gathers under its roof specialists in various disciplines who work on China, Korea and Japan. Above us, on the fourth floor, were the offices and seminar room of the university’s Confucius Institute, which opened its doors in 2010. A Confucius Institute is an academic unit that provides accredited instruction in Chinese language and culture and sponsors a variety of extracurricular activities, including art exhibitions, lectures, conferences, film screenings and celebrations of Chinese festivals; at Chicago and a number of other schools, it also funds the research projects of local faculty members on Chinese subjects. I asked Foss if Chicago’s CI had ever organized lectures or conferences on issues controversial in China, such as Tibetan independence or the political status of Taiwan. Gesturing to a far wall, he said, “I can put up a picture of the Dalai Lama in this office. But on the fourth floor, we wouldn’t do that.”
The reason is that the Confucius Institutes at the University of Chicago and elsewhere are subsidized and supervised by the government of the People’s Republic of China. The CI program was launched by the PRC in 2004, and there are now some 400 institutes worldwide as well as an outreach program consisting of nearly 600 “Confucius classrooms” in secondary and elementary schools. In some respects, such a government-funded educational and cultural initiative is nothing new. For more than sixty years, Germany has relied on the Goethe-Institut to foster the teaching of German around the globe. But whereas the Goethe-Institut, like the British Council and the Alliance Française, is a stand-alone institution situated outside university precincts, a Confucius Institute exists as a virtually autonomous unit within the regular curriculum of the host school—for example, providing accredited courses in Chinese language in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.
There’s another big difference: CIs are managed by a foreign government, and accordingly are responsive to its politics. The constitution and bylaws of CIs, together with the agreements established with the host universities, place their academic activities under the supervision of the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese Language Council International, commonly known as Hanban. Although official documents describe Hanban as “affiliated with the Ministry of Education,” it is governed by a council of high state and party officials from various political departments and chaired by a member of the Politburo, Vice Premier Liu Yandong. The governing council over which Liu presides currently consists of members from twelve state ministries and commissions, including Foreign Affairs, Education, Finance and Culture, the State Council Information Office, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the State Press and Publications Administration. Simply put, Hanban is an instrument of the party state operating as an international pedagogical organization.
In larger universities hosting CIs, Hanban assumes responsibility for a portion of the total Chinese curriculum. In the more numerous smaller hosts, most or all of the instruction in Chinese language and culture is under its control. Hanban has the right to supply the teachers, textbooks and curriculums of the courses in its charge; it also names the Chinese co-directors of the local Confucius Institutes. Research projects on China undertaken by scholars with Hanban funds are approved by Beijing. The teachers appointed by Hanban, together with the academic and extracurricular programs of the CIs, are periodically evaluated and approved by Beijing, and host universities are required to accept Beijing’s supervision and assessments of CI activities. Hanban reserves the right to take punitive legal action in regard to any activity conducted under the name of the Confucius Institutes without its permission or authorization. Hanban has signed agreements that grant exceptions to these dictates, but usually only when it has wanted to enlist a prestigious university, such as Stanford or Chicago, in the worldwide CI project.
For all the attention that the Confucius Institutes have attracted in the United States and elsewhere, there has been virtually no serious journalistic or ethnographic investigation into their particulars, such as how the Chinese teachers are trained or how the content of courses and textbooks are chosen. One difficulty has been that the CIs are something of a moving target. Not only are Chinese officials willing to be flexible in their negotiations with elite institutions, but the general Hanban strategy has also been changing in recent years. Despite its global reach, the CI program is apparently not achieving the political objectives of burnishing the image and increasing the influence of the People’s Republic. Unlike Mao’s Little Red Book in the era of Third World liberation, the current Chinese regime is a hard sell. Having the appearance of an attractive political system is a necessary condition of “soft power” success, as Joseph Nye, who coined the phrase, has written. The revamped Confucius Institute initiative is to engage less in language and culture and more in the core teaching and research of the host university. Still, the working principles of the CI program remain those of its constitution and bylaws, together with the model agreements negotiated with participating universities. Routinely and assiduously, Hanban wants the Confucius Institutes to hold events and offer instruction under the aegis of host universities that put the PRC in a good light—thus confirming the oft-quoted remark of Politburo member Li Changchun that the Confucius Institutes are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
A 2011 article in The People’s Daily, the organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, declared as much, boasting of the spread of the Confucius Institutes (331 at the time) alongside other indices of China’s ascent to world-political prominence, such as its annual growth rate of 8 percent, its technological and military accomplishments, and its newfound status as the second-largest economy in the world. “Why is China receiving so much attention now? It is because of its ever-increasing power…. Today we have a different relationship with the world and the West: we are no longer left to their tender mercies. Instead we have slowly risen and are becoming their equal.”
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