Communists in the Classroom?
By Aubrey BelfordMarch 1, 2012
Chinese study centres are rapidly multiplying at schools and universities around the world, including Australia. They come Communist Party-approved…
In general, the campus of Al Azhar University in Jakarta is a bit worn around the edges. A towering, domed mosque hovers over the main campus of what is one of Indonesia's main Islamic universities as young students, many of them in headscarves, weave between classes.
Al Azhar's newly opened Mandarin Language Centre, by contrast, is gleaming. Open for classes since 2011, the centre is one of an exploding number of institutes at universities and schools around the world that are spreading Chinese language and culture with teachers, materials and money supplied, in part, by China.
For cash-strapped schools, the centres, known as Confucius Institutes, are a tempting proposition. But their spread is raising plenty of concern that the centres are promoting Chinese influence — or even propaganda — at the expense of academic freedom.
Since 2004, China has aggressively expanded Confucius Institutes around the world — particularly in the West and Asia — spending at least USD500 million to open 358 centres in 100 countries. In Australia, a dozen jointly funded institutes have been opened at universities, and a slew of Confucius Classrooms have been opened at primary and secondary schools in New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.
For a world eager to learn more about China, and to cash in on its economic rise, it's an easy way to boost teaching in what is often a neglected subject. The Chinese, for their part, are adamant the institutes are apolitical and purely focused on language and culture.
So why the big fuss? The short answer is the Chinese Communist Party, and its pervasive influence on all things emanating from mainland China.
While supporters of the institutes compare them to other nations' independent cultural outreach centres, such as Alliance Française or the British Council, the Confucius Institutes fall under the party's control, says Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
"It's not what I think. It's what we know about the Chinese political system — that the Confucius Institute is within the party system of managing organisations," Brady says. "The Confucius Institute, intrinsically it's all linked back to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party."
Confucius Institutes worldwide come under the coordination of Hanban, a Beijing-based organisation affiliated with China's education ministry. While nominally non-governmental, the organisation's leadership, including its director, Xu Lin, is largely comprised of Communist Party officials.
For Brady, this is key. In China, the party is the unseen power controlling all government institutions and many private and public entities. Institutional independence is an illusion. While bureaucrats and managers have official jobs, they wear "two hats", simultaneously answering to party directives, she says.
So what is the party trying to achieve? The non-controversial answer is that it is trying to raise China's image abroad, and to project cultural "soft power" to a world that is often wary of China's rise. Just how insidious this is depends on your opinion of the party's legitimacy, and its methods.
In China, the word propaganda is not nearly as dirty as it is in the West. The party's vast propaganda apparatus at home tightly controls expression with express directives to the media on how to cover issues, while keeping other boundaries murky in an effort to encourage self-censorship. Abroad, Chinese propaganda seeks to alternately charm (when it comes to issues such as rapprochement with Taiwan) and scold (when it comes to issues such as human rights or the Dalai Lama).
The party clearly sees Confucius Institutes as propaganda, in the Chinese sense. Li Changchun, a senior party cadre involved with propaganda, reportedly said in 2007 that the institutes are "an important channel to glorify Chinese culture, to help Chinese culture spread to the world" and that this is "part of China's foreign propaganda strategy".
More broadly, China has spent huge sums in recent years in an attempt to show a friendlier and more familiar face to the world, including by increasing the English-language content and spread of Xinhua, its state news agency, and China Central Television.
Among universities, opinion is divided over just how heavy-handed Confucius Institutes are. The overseeing organisation, Hanban, reportedly has leant on partner universities in the past to make funding contingent on staying silent on controversial issues like Tibet, but appears to have dialled back pressure recently.
Instead, Hanban exerts its influence in more subtle ways. Confucius Institutes are insistently non-political, meaning in effect, they preclude discussion on controversial issues. The organisation's bylaws bind institutes to following the laws of host countries, as well as the laws of China. Institutes also can act as a beachhead for Chinese pressure on other parts of the academy, where the withdrawal of funding, student enrolments, or study and business opportunities in China can be used as a threat to respect the limits of Chinese sensitivities, Brady says. Even without Confucius Institutes, universities around the world have proven susceptible to the threat of losing access to the lucrative Chinese education market.
"The thing is, the directors self-censor," she says. "They know, like the people in China, like the academics, what the no-go zones are."
Hanban's headquarters in Beijing declined to answer written questions and a request for a phone interview with Xu, its director. Xuan Guifen, a Hanban official, said the organisation only gives in-person interviews.
At Jakarta's Al Azhar University, administrators acknowledge that politics is to be kept out of the classroom. Across the world, Confucius Institutes are funded in different ways. In some areas, it is an initial grant, in others funding is ongoing; the split between local and Chinese money also varies. At Al Azhar, the new centre was built thanks to philanthropic donations by a number of Indonesian Chinese. Hanban and the Chinese Education Department cover the computers, the teaching material and the teachers, who are Chinese nationals, at a cost of about USD100,000 a year. Al Azhar pays for electricity, cleaning and other maintenance costs. Given the fact that Confucianism is registered as a state religion in Indonesia, the brand was dropped in favour of the more generic Pusat Bahasa Mandarin, or Mandarin Language Centre. Tuition is free.
The centre, one of six in Indonesia, was built on agreement between the Indonesian and Chinese governments. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit last year. "Of course when two countries work together there must be a political aspect involved," says Murni Djamal, the dean of Al Azhar's Faculty of Letters, which oversees the centre. " But this is only at the higher level of government," he says, adding that the establishment of the centres is part of Indonesian government efforts to build stronger ties with China.
In the year it has been running, the centre has tripled the number of Al Azhar students studying Chinese, from about 10 to about 30, Murni says.
At Al Azhar, where politics is everywhere and carries a distinctly Islamic tinge, this is an odd fit. During a visit on a recent Friday, the campus's grand mosque was hosting a talk by the Indonesian ambassador to Jordan on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown on protesters.
Murni says the university aims, via the centre, to set up exchanges with students in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority western province that is home to often-violent resistance to repressive Chinese rule. But, uncharacteristically for Al Azhar, politics will be off the table.
"So far we haven't touched a problem yet in our discussion because we are very much concerned with language and cultural aspects," Murni says.
On a global scale, attempts to assess the impact of Confucius Institutes have shown mixed experiences. "We found both satisfied and unsatisfied participants in the CI programs, and some concern and skepticism, but no clear pattern of censorship or attempted censorship," says Michael Paschal, the director of the Association for Asian Studies, a worldwide professional association for Asian academics, with about 8,000 members. The association advises its members to make clear agreements when establishing Confucius Institutes, and to pursue endowments or gifts rather than ongoing funding.
A study of Confucius Institutes in Germany by Falk Hartig, a PhD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology, found little evidence of day-to-day interference in teaching. But there was a sense that some topics, such as "the T-words — Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen" were off limits. "The crucial point is that Confucius Institutes in Germany don't actively tell lies and half-truths. But when it comes to certain sensitive topics, Confucius Institutes turn quiet or even silent," Hartig writes.
In Australia, there is a similar pattern. The introduction of Confucius Classrooms in New South Wales primary schools and high schools, backed by more AUD200,000 in Chinese money, prompted the Greens to table a petition with more than 10,000 signatures in the state parliament calling for their abolition out of concerns about Chinese political interference. In an earlier report in The Sydney Morning Herald last year, Phil Lambert, an education department official involved in the program, conceded "there are topics that are best not to engage in."
When I ask the dean of the Al Azhar centre, Li Qi Hui, about politics, he says his operation is the same as Confucius Institutes anywhere in the world: "We don't get involved in politics, only language and culture." Besides, he says, Hanban as an organisation, is not under the direct control of China's government.
When I point out that Hanban is under the control of Communist officials, who in turn respond to party dictates, Qi laughs.
"That's all of China," he says.