Confucius Institutes fall victim to US politics

New legislation targeting centres illustrates the current anti-China climate when most universities acknowledge the clear cultural and learning benefits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 10:32pm

The University of North Florida has just announced it is closing its Confucius Institute, following a similar decision by Texas A&M University in April.

Meanwhile, tucked away in the US$716 billion John McCain National Defence Authorisation Act, just signed into law, is a provision barring any American university from using Pentagon resources for programmes involving Confucius Institutes.

If some US politicians such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio are to be believed, the institutes are there to spread Chinese communist propaganda, subvert academic freedom and free speech on American campuses, silence China critics and recruit spies.

Similar allegations have been made by Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former head of the Asia-Pacific division of the Canadian Security Intelligence Services. But such people never offer a smoking gun, and rarely, if ever, provide facts or evidence to support their claims.

I recently interviewed several tough critics of Confucius Institutes in both the US and Canada for a news feature. When they talk about censorship and subversion of free speech by the institutes, it apparently has to do with the fact that institute instructors usually shy away from discussing sensitive topics such as Tibet and Xinjiang separatism, the June 4 crackdown, or alleged organ-harvesting of Falun Gong members on the mainland.

Confucius Institute closes at US university amid influence concerns

But if you just want to learn Chinese grammar and calligraphy, Tang poetry, tai chi or regional cuisine cooking, why would you insist on raising those issues and then allege political censorship and interference?

In the Name of Confucius, a documentary highly critical of the institutes, is currently making the rounds of film festivals and human rights conferences in North America and elsewhere. It was made by a Falun Gong member, profiling a former institute teacher in Canada who is a Falun Gong member and featuring a Falun Gong actress.

There are more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. They make for a convenient target in the current anti-China climate in many Western countries.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many universities and schools may be wary of the political attention, but most realise the institutes are harmless and deliver clear cultural and learning benefits. Despite the often sensational news reports about the shutting down of a few Confucius Institutes, the global closure rate is less than 3 per cent.

Of course, it’s different if you are not there to learn, but to make a political statement.