Posts Tagged ‘Confucius Institutes’


The Centrality of the National

March 26, 2019

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government


society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.


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.


British Council Kicks Confucius Institutes

March 10, 2012

Earlier in the week the International Herald Tribune carried an article discussing concerns over the effects of Confucius Institutes on discussion of China in the universities that host them.   The story ends with a nice paragraph

Bruce Cumings, a tenured historian at the University of Chicago who signed a petition protesting the Confucius Institute there, said that although he is on the board of the university’s East Asian study center, he heard nothing about the institute “until the day it was opened.” But such a low-profile approach, he said, is only possible while China itself remains calm. The network of institutes “are time bombs awaiting the next Tiananmen,” he said.

What really caught my attention were some quotes from the Chief Executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson where he

 says that the comparison, often made by Confucius Institute defenders, between his organization…and the Chinese effort, only goes so far. “We are a stand-alone organization operating out of our own premises. They are being embedded in university campuses,” he said in an interview. “The real question has to be one of independence. Are we seen as simply representing the views of the government? Or is there a degree of separation?”

The story makes the point that western cultural relations organizations aren’t based on university camputes

And according to Mr. Davidson, none adopt the same homogenous approach to their native cultures found in Confucius Institutes. “No one would regard Zadie Smith or Grayson Perry as someone controlled by the British Council,” he said.

“The Chinese are very clear on what they are trying to achieve,” said Mr. Davidson. “They want to change the perception of China — to combat negative propaganda with positive propaganda. And they use the word ‘propaganda’ in Chinese. But I doubt they have to say, ‘We’ll only give you this money if you never criticize China.’ The danger is more of self-censorship — which is a very subtle thing,” Mr. Davidson said.

The full story is here