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What’s Different about Confucius Institutes?

January 22, 2015

Marshall Sahlins has expanded his attack on Confucius Institutes into a longer (but still pamphlet length) version.

His basic complaint is that the Confucius Institute system is infiltrating Western education systems. This is an organization that is part of the Communist Party directed Chinese state, it teaches simplified Chinese which means that students can only read works published in the PRC since language reform and the agenda of the institutes has to exclude Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. He provides examples of CI’s attempting to take over all China related teaching in institutions.

I share the pamphlet’s concerns but Sahlins is only focusing on one country and as result there’s a danger of overstating how different the CI system is.

Firstly, locating institutes inside educational institutions is unusual but it isn’t unique.  At least some of the branches of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes are located in Universities.

Secondly, attempting to influence education systems is the bread and butter of cultural diplomacy. As usual exhibit A is France’s defence of, and promotion of, the French language but states have been heavily involved in the promotion of the study of themselves for a long time – Hungary was funding a lectureship in at the LSE in the interwar period, also consider the promotion of American, Canadian or Indian Studies.

Thirdly, while there are probably a few cultural relations organizations that have zero relationship with foreign policy most do.

Fourthly, CI’s check the political reliability of staff. That’s probably not that unusual. Keep in mind that historically much of France’s cultural relations work was done by the Foreign Ministry so even if the director of the Institut had an academic job somewhere they were on secondment to the Quai. In the early years of the Cold War the British Council had defections and you can be sure that after that there was more of a check on who they were sending abroad at least to certain countries.

The specific problem with the CI system is not any of these things in isolation. It’s the combination of these with fact that the PRC is a Communist state which makes many people in the West read anything the CI does (or doesn’t do) through a political lens.

Sahlins documents cases where Universities and education authorities have rejected or refused to renew CI contracts and I would expect that there will inevitably be more of these cases particularly in view of the current ideological tightening in China.

The irony is that by either moving outside education systems or by very ostentatiously abandoning politically contentious elements of the system the CI would work rather better for China. After all the medium is the message. If the CI’s boost ties to China there will be plenty of other opportunities to expose people to approved PRC narratives without generating damaging contestations.

One comment

  1. Here in Kenya, The Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi has launch textbooks of Chinese language as more Kenyan students are attending Chinese classes.Through the Kenya’s Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD)

    The Confucius Institute has donated books and a multi-media television screen to the KICD to establish a Chinese language corner there.

    here in kenya we are very passionate about it . It boost awareness of the Chinese literature, culture and philosophy.



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