If you are an American academician specializing in Asian affairs, you may have noticed that an organization called the "Confucius Institute" has sprung up on a nearby US college campus.
Not long ago one was launched at my own academic institution, the University of Oregon in Eugene, with much attendant fanfare, including a Kun Opera performance. Since the first institutes came into existence in the last decade, a host of questions have been raised about them. Up to now, however, the major media outlets in the United States have given relatively little attention to the development.
The institutes are "nonprofit" joint ventures – contractual arrangements between colleges (and other institutions) around the world and Hanban, an agency based in the PRC that oversees the entire operation. Hanban is staffed with Chinese government bureaucrats.
In an effort to project China's soft power worldwide via culture and education, Beijing reportedly put up US$10 billion to establish the first 100 institutes. Xinhua, the Chinese state wire service, reported last July that 316 Confucius Institutes have now been established in 94 countries.
Their official function is to promote Mandarin language study and an appreciation of Chinese culture. Hanban provides seed money to get the institutes running (the initial amount is generally in the US$150,000- $250,000 range), ongoing financial support and a variety of perks. For example, campuses with Confucius Institutes are allocated a certain number of Chinese government scholarships – awards that cover "full tuition and living expenses for international students and scholars to study language and China-related studies at Chinese universities."
The University of Oregon recently received word that "approximately" 10 scholarships were available to its students.
The institutes occupy offices on college campuses. They have on-site directors, typically China specialists who are already on the faculty, and paid staff, including language instructors and assistant directors from affiliated Chinese universities. They offer language classes, but not always for college credit, and sponsor or co-sponsor an array of lectures, exhibits, and other events of a cultural nature.
Much of that seems harmless enough, and some of it sounds downright appealing. So what's the problem? Let me focus on a single issue.
They come with visible strings attached. Some of the strings can be seen in the memoranda of understanding that US universities conclude with Hanban. Among other things, they must state their support for the "one China policy" – the decades-old US policy of not recognizing the legitimacy of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
I, for one, consider that policy profoundly misguided, and I'm sure that I'm not the only American who feels that way. At universities, we normally have an opportunity to debate issues like that, allowing professors like me and students to take issue publicly with our government's policy. Hanban, for obvious reasons, wants no such discussion to occur.
What that particular attached string means in practice is that Confucius Institutes will hardly ever provide funding for events relating to Taiwan. It also means that other academic units at Hanban-affiliated universities will not likely fund them either. Once the perks from Hanban begin to arrive, professors at universities with CIs become extremely reluctant to do anything to upset their generous benefactors.
But it's not just Taiwan that receives special treatment. Two other "T" words are anathema to Beijing, and hence to Hanban: Tibet and Tiananmen. Don't expect any universities with CIs to arrange a visit of the Dalai Lama anytime soon or to schedule a symposium on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In Canada last year, during riots in Tibet, the head of a Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo succeeded in reversing the direction of coverage and getting a major Canadian television station to apologize for its previous pro-rebel coverage.
Other issues are verboten – China's treatment of the recent Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and other human rights activists, China's military buildup, China's currency manipulation, China's appalling environmental record, China's crackdown on the Falun Gong and so on. Hanban wants to paint a portrait of China without any unsightly wrinkles. As one scholar puts it, the People's Republic is intent on emphasizing "happy news."
In the academy, we have words to describe this approach to community education and public discussion. "Propagandizing" is one word; "censorship" is another. But don't blame Hanban alone. It merely provides some money and establishes the guidelines; the academics and university administrators carry out the policies.
In my view, those university-based China scholars are most at fault. While a few of them have spoken out against the institutes, most have not, and more than a few have willingly collaborated. Personally, I applaud the outspoken ones and have no use for the collaborators. As for the silent masses, I sympathize to some extent. Many realize that to speak out is to run the risk of being denied a visa to China. The People's Republic is not kind to its critics.
Under the circumstances, the academy cannot expect the China scholars, the supposed experts on things Chinese, to police the activities of the institutes. They are, sad to say, a hopelessly compromised lot. Nor can we expect university administrators to do so either – many of them have played key roles in establishing Confucius Institutes on their campuses. That leaves the rest of us. If you care about free speech and believe that the university should provide an open forum for discussion and debate, you should be concerned.
Glenn Anthony May, professor of history at the University of Oregon, specializes in Southeast Asian history. For the current academic year, he is visiting professor in the Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies at Academia Sinica, Taipei.