'Cultural exchange' or propaganda?: Centre reviews China's Confucius Institutes amid global concern

FP Staff
·5-min read

Amid heightened tensions along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, the Centre is reviewing the presence of China's Confucius Institutes in universities, media reports have said.

The reports have sparked a prompt reaction from China, which has asked India to "avoid politicising normal cooperation and maintain healthy and stable development of China-India people-to-people and cultural exchanges."

India has joined a long list of countries in which concerns have been raised about whether such institutes are propaganda arms of the Chinese State. The first Confucius Institute in the world was opened in 2004, and the institutes have acquired global prominence and attracted fierce criticism in a relatively short span of time.

What are Confucius Institutes?

Deriving its name from the renowned Chinese educator and philosopher Confucius, who lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE, the Confucius Institutes are non-profit institutions affiliated with China's Ministry of Education.

Their mission is primarily to promote Chinese language and culture at schools and universities throughout the world projecting China's soft power. China had opened 500 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 135 countries as of the end of 2015, according to the latest annual development report released by Hanban.

According to BBC, there were 548 Confucius Institutes, also known as Hanban, around the world by the end of 2018, as well as 1,193 Confucius classrooms based in primary and secondary schools. The institutes are joint ventures between the host university or school, a partner university in China, and Hanban, a controversial agency under China's education ministry.

The 'Constitution and By-Laws' of the Confucius Institutes mention that they "devote themselves to satisfying the demands of people from different countries and regions in the world who learn the Chinese language, to enhancing understanding of the Chinese language and culture by these peoples, to strengthening educational and cultural exchange and cooperation between China and other countries, to deepening friendly relationships with other nations, to promoting the development of multi-culturalism, and to construct a harmonious world."


While China claims that these institutes are aimed at helping people better understand the country's culture, many around the world are convinced.

In 2019, a report by Human Rights Watch noted, "Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration."

An article in Foreign Policy notes that there is "mounting evidence" that the institutes' learning materials distort contemporary Chinese history and omit "catastrophes" such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which happened during the reign of Chinese Communist Party, entirely.

There have been several instances of the institutes exerting undue influence and imposing censorship. For example, at a conference in Portugal in 2014, the head of Hanban, Xu Lin, reportedly told her staff to remove references to Taiwan from a programme document before it was distributed to participants. Similarly, in 2018, a keynote speaker at Savannah State University in the US had a reference to Taiwan deleted from her bio at the request of the co-director of the university's Confucius Institute.

Global concern

Given this background, it is little surprise that in many quarters, Confucius Institutes are not seen merely as benign attempts to expand China's soft power.

According to Reuters, some major US colleges, including Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago, have cut ties with the institute after professors complained its programmes were Chinese propaganda wrapped in culture and language education.

In February 2019, US Senate investigators released a report saying the centres have acted as tightly controlled propaganda arms for Beijing and should be changed - or shut down, as mentioned in another Reuters article.

The Senate report said China's government controls nearly every aspect of the institutes in the United States, including their funding, staff and programming. It also can veto any programme or speaker.

The investigators did not find evidence that staff at the Confucius Institutes were involved in espionage or other activity that would need reporting to law enforcement. However, according to the report, they did find many staff had obtained the wrong type of visa and that 70 percent of US colleges and universities that received at least $250,000 per year from the Chinese government did not report it as required by the Department of Education.

In August 2019, the Australian state of New South Wales shut the Confucius Institute programme from the state's public schools due to fears of potential foreign influence. Notably, the New South Wales government was the first government body in the world to host such an institute within its own Department of Education in 2011 €" as opposed to the usual process where institutes are set up in universities, a report in ABC News said.

Sweden closed all Confucius Institutes in the country in May 2020 amid deteriorating ties between China and the Scandinavian nation. The decision was said to have been taken due to concerns of security and human rights violations.

In India, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had in 2019 asked universities to seek approval from the central government, including the home and foreign ministries, before entering into any agreement for setting up a Confucius Institute, as reported by The Times of India.

The recent review of such institutes by the Centre appears to be an extension of the same cautious approach. With Beijing taking a more confrontational approach in its ties with India, such caution certainly appears warranted.

With inputs from PTI

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