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Confucius Institutes Again

November 1, 2013

The distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has a long piece on Confucius Institutes in the latest issue of The Nation which contains a few pieces of information that I don’t remember having seen before (or I’ve seen and hadn’t registered.

  • Confucius Institutes are under the Chinese Language Council International, better known as the Hanban, the governing council of the Hanban is chaired by a deputy Premier and includes among its members the Foreign Ministry, the State Council Information Office, and the State Press and Publications Administration not just the Ministry of Education.  As Sahlins puts it ‘Hanban is an instrument of the party state operating as an international pedagogical organization’.
  • The model agreement for establishing an Institute is secret and contains a non-disclosure agreement.  This tends to obscure just how much influence that the Chinese side has over staffing and curriculum.   In particular Chinese staff are vetted for political reliability – Falun Gong members need not apply – and CI programmes won’t deal with Taiwan, Tibet, Tianmen or human rights.
  • In negotiating terms for Institutes the Hanban appears to be more flexible in the US than in Canada, and the more prestigious the University the more that it is able to set the terms of the contract.  However Sahlin speculates that as top American universities are getting involved with the programme they are seeing them as icebreakers to improve their access to China so they’re not driving as hard a bargain as he would expect.
  • Sahlin is particularly interested in the University of Chicago, which seems to have managed avoid delete the secrecy clause from the contract and have a say over staffing but is still acting as if the whole thing is secret and isn’t engaged in the selection of staff.
  • He also makes the point that CIs only teach students to read simplified Characters – ie the script that is used in the PRC but not in other Chinese speaking populations (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia)
  • There’s also an evolution in the CI strategy away from language and culture and towards greater involvement in teaching and research in other areas.

One of the take aways from my current research is that engagement with a country’s educational system is one of the most powerful ways of building connections and China is doing this big time.

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