The all-American criticism against Confucius Institutes
Barry Sautman says when Confucius Institutes are accused of peddling propaganda, they're really being criticised for not advocating US views
China now has 300-odd Confucius Institutes around the globe, mainly teaching Chinese language and culture. They often partner with universities, including one in Hong Kong.
In the past few years, the institutes have taken a beating from Western, especially American, critics. Marshall Sahlins, an eminent University of Chicago anthropologist, has added to that critique through a recent article in The Nation magazine.
Sahlins' main argument is that universities should break ties with the institutes because they are "propaganda efforts of a foreign government in a way that contradicts the values of free inquiry and human welfare…" His evidence is that Beijing is unwilling to allow the institutes it funds to be used as forums for Tibet and Taiwan independence supporters and the Falun Gong. Some universities with Confucius Institutes also don't do all he would like to aid such supporters; for example, a few have chosen not to provide venues for the Dalai Lama.
Sahlins' argument is an odd one: most public diplomacy programmes don't provide forums for perceived enemies - or even critics - of the governments that fund them. I'm occasionally interviewed by a US government-funded broadcaster. My comments critical of Chinese government policies are broadcast; those critical of US government policies are not.
A Broadcasting Board of Governors, headed by the US secretary of state, oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the like. Its eight other members by law must all be, in effect, "party cadres": four Democrats and four Republicans. The board ensures that, on issues like Tibet, only one view is heard; that of the Tibetan exiles who staff its Tibetan language services.
Sahlins' article refers to only one academic paper on Confucius Institutes, by a PhD student in Australia whom Sahlins presents as making another odd argument: that the institutes, by teaching simplified Chinese characters, conspire to keep their students "semi-literate" in order to cut them off from Hong Kong and Taiwan writing that is critical of the Chinese government and uses traditional characters.
Other scholarly articles, however, treat the institutes as public or cultural diplomatic outfits, and examine the issues raised by Sahlins. Another Australian PhD student analysed the institutes in Germany. Among the institutes' leaders he interviewed, one said critical topics should be handled "in a balanced manner and with the necessary respect towards sensitivities in China". Another said his institute could hold a discussion with the largest "free Tibet" group in Germany.
It might be said that Sahlins' argument is peculiarly American: that all and sundry must accept being "inclusive" of viewpoints mainly held by US politicians and media. For example, Sahlins deplores that, in a 2008 lecture, one Confucius Institute director "use[d] a map that showed Tibet clearly inside of China." No state disputes that Tibet is "clearly inside of China", but the US Congress and much of the US media do. Sahlins, oddly, seems to argue that Confucius Institutes should host those who take the opposite position.
Barry Sautman is an associate professor in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology