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A Confucius Institute in Russia. The institutes have spread to some 160 countries worldwide since the first opened in South Korea in 2004. Photo: TASS via Getty Images

Japan, South Korea join growing backlash against China’s Confucius Institutes

  • Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga’s administration plans to launch a formal inquiry into the institutes, with activists in South Korea agitating for the same
  • The institutes have come under fire in the US, Europe and Australia amid allegations they spread propaganda, interfere with free speech and spy
A growing backlash against China’s Confucius Institutes, which offer a form of cultural outreach and Chinese language teaching overseas, has spread to South Korea and Japan as activists and politicians call for the state-backed learning centres to be investigated or shut down.
The institutes have already come under fire in the United States, Europe and Australia amid allegations they have been used by Beijing to spread propaganda, interfere with free speech at the universities that host them, and even commit espionage.
In South Korea, which with 22 Confucius Institutes has more than any other country, a group of right-wing activists have railed against the learning centres as “brainwashing tools” – while in Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration is launching an inquiry into their funding, operations and the extent of their influence.
The first ever Confucius Institute opened in Seoul’s Gangnam district in 2004. Photo: Handout

The first ever Confucius Institute opened in Seoul’s Gangnam district in 2004 and after a rapid period of Chinese government-funded expansion, they can now be found in almost 160 countries with more than 500 institutes worldwide.

Billed as public educational partnerships between universities and colleges in China and those overseas, they are overseen by the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation – known as Hanban before a low-key rebranding last summer – which has been criticised for its close links to the Communist Party.

At a rally outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul last week, a group of activists led by Han Min-ho, a former cultural ministry official, waved South Korean and US flags and carried banners stating: “There is no Confucius in the Confucius Institutes.”

“Confucius Institutes are the Chinese Communist Party’s brainwashing tools in disguise which are aiming to nurture its supporters and sympathisers in this country,” Han told This Week In Asia, adding that he hoped to “raise public awareness about the true nature” of the institutes and “kick them out of the country”.

Confucius Institutes at Australian universities could be next casualty of strained ties

He said it was “lamentable” that Korean politicians, scholars and educators seemingly believed that the institutes were comparable to other cultural and language organisations such as France’s Alliance Francaise, the British Council or Germany’s Goethe Institute.

Lawmakers had largely “turned a deaf ear” to pleas from Han’s group to take action against the institutes, as “they are all scared of China and the Communist Party sabre-rattling over the whole world”, he said.

Last year, Chung Kyung-hee of the opposition People Power Party of Korea did take a stand in parliament, Han said, when she accused the Confucius Institutes of distorting history and promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s ideas and policies.

She cited a cartoon on the organisation’s website – since removed – that redefined the Korean war as the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”, in line with Communist Party propaganda, and blamed America for starting it.

The Chinese Communist Party has no intention of teaching a balanced or free perspective on history at their institutes. They want to nurture future generations of sympathisers
Yoichi Shimada, international-relations professor at Japan’s Fukui Prefectural University 

Chung called on education authorities to launch a sweeping investigation into the Confucius Institutes’ activities but was “stonewalled”, according to an aide who spoke to This Week In Asia on condition of anonymity. “I don’t think they are looking into it seriously … Chung asked them to report the investigation results back to her six months ago, but there has been no answer so far,” the aide said.

South Korea’s education ministry did not respond to a request for comment on this article, but Lee Jin-sook, head of Chungnam National University – which hosts one of the country’s Confucius Institutes – last year denied at a parliamentary hearing that they were anything other than centres for language learning and cultural exchange.

In Japan, meanwhile, the education ministry has confirmed that it will investigate all 14 of the country’s Confucius Institutes over allegations they are being used to promote propaganda and possibly gather intelligence – with universities that host the centres being asked to provide details on their operations, involvement in academic research and sources of funding, as well as the number of students who attend them.

“There is growing concern in our ally the United States, as well as in European countries – which share common values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law – that these institutions should be abolished or be required to fully disclose their information,” Education Minister Koichi Haguida said in response to a question in parliament last month.

Rising US anger at Confucius Institutes has Southeast Asia thinking of consequences

In a follow-up, an MP from Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party asked: “Is it good that the only cultural centres that have been systematically and strategically established in Japanese universities [are ones from] a country ruled exclusively by a Communist Party?”

As the institutes offer no formal qualifications, there is little official oversight in Japan of how they are run. Yet they are popular with universities, including some of the country’s leading ones, for the links they offer to their counterparts in China, which in turn can become a lucrative source of international students.

Waseda University, which declined to comment for this article, is particularly “notorious” for aggressively appealing to Chinese students, according to Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

“In Japan, our biggest concern is that these facilities serve to generate sympathy for the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history or politics or culture,” he said. “At the same time, there has to be a worry that these places could function to promote espionage within these universities and beyond, into the companies and institutions that have links with the colleges.”


US education says no to Chinese resources

US education says no to Chinese resources
Shimada pointed to the recent case of University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu, who is currently on trial charged with hiding his relationship with a Chinese university while receiving research grants from the US federal government, as evidence of how Beijing could covertly infiltrate university research facilities and companies working on advanced technologies.
Hu’s case, along with that of Harvard University Professor Dr Charles Lieber, who was accused of lying to authorities about his ties to a China-run recruitment programme and funding he allegedly received from the Chinese government for research, has led Washington to warn US universities that Beijing is intent on stealing intellectual property from them.

Shimada said Confucius Institutes in Japan should “come clean about their funding” and be “completely open” about the courses that they teach.

“The Chinese Communist Party has no intention of teaching a balanced or free perspective on history at their institutes. They want to nurture future generations of sympathisers who will one day work in China’s interests,” he said.

What does US Confucius Institute move mean for Chinese soft power in Asia?

Opposition politician Jin Matsubara, a former chairman of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission, said he supported the government’s inquiry into Confucius Institutes as “universities should be bastions of free speech, but we should also be very careful about propaganda that promotes crimes against humanity or violent crackdowns”.

“I believe we should openly debate and defeat the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party,” he added.

The State Department under former President Donald Trump last year designated the centre that runs Confucius Institutes in the US as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese government, calling it “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses” in a statement.
Australian universities hosting Confucius Institutes were ordered last month to submit the contracts under which the centres were established for review by the federal government by June 10. Meanwhile in Europe, universities in countries including Sweden, Germany and Belgium have severed ties with Confucius Institutes,  or closed them down entirely, after allegations of wrongdoing emerged.