With much debate surrounding the presence of Confucius Institutes on university campuses around the world, Gráinne Loughran looks at the troubled programme’s prospects in UCD

Where is the line to be drawn between education and propaganda? This is not an abstract query, but an issue UCD will be asking itself soon. The Confucius Institute (CI), a programme established to promote Chinese language and culture in international universities and secondary schools, has had a presence on UCD’s campus for the past eight years and on other university campuses all over the world since 2004. However, 2016 will bring a new €6 million “model” facility and a much larger footprint for the extremely controversial initiative of the Chinese government onto UCD’s campus, the first facility of its kind outside China.

In the past week alone Penn State University, the University of Chicago and the University of Toronto have begun to cut their ties with the CI, citing issues surrounding academic integrity, censorship and discriminatory hiring processes. As UCD slips down the Times Higher Education world university rankings, why is it that it will welcome such a contentious institute in such a big way? Do claims of discrimination and censorship on the part of the CI hold up, and will they affect third level education in Ireland? And will there be a clash between the motivations of the Irish and the Chinese governments in the running of their joint investment?

CIs are comparable to the British Council, the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut in their stated aims of promoting Chinese language learning, culture and exchanges, and fostering links between their host country and China. What differs however is their positioning in their host countries. Confucius Institutes run in conjunction with and on the campuses of universities, giving them a certain amount of influence over third level education, and providing accredited courses. Overseen by Hanban, the Chinese International Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and affiliated with the Department of Education of China, the CIs are seen by many to be an arm of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). According to Marshall Sahlins, anthropologist and professor emeritus of the University of Chicago which terminated its contract with the CI last week, “Hanban’s so-called “affiliation” with the Ministry of Education obscures the fact that it is controlled by a Governing Council of high officials of the Chinese State, headed by a member of the Politburo, Vice-Premier Liu Yandong.” In fact, the link between the PRC and Hanban may be greater than is portrayed by the Institute itself. In statements attributed to then propaganda chief of the Communist Party of China, Li Changchun, he describes the programme as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”

Describing the teaching of the Chinese language and culture in terms of propaganda readily puts the motives behind the CIs into question. The Chinese government’s reputation in the classroom for the discussion of more controversial aspects of its history such as the Tiananmen Square massacre is not known for its openness, or even its acceptance that such an event happened. This tendency for censorship, via the Confucius Institute, may be spread as part of the agreements set up between the Confucius Institute and universities and secondary schools around the world.

For instance, in July of this year, the Director General of the Confucius Institutes Vice Minister Xu Lin provoked outrage when she ordered that several pages be torn out of the conference programme for the annual meeting of the European Association of Chinese Studies in Portugal, which was partially funded by Hanban. One of the conditions for receiving the grant was that “the conference is regulated by the laws and decrees of both China and the host country, and will not carry out any activities which are deemed adverse to the social order.” The pages removed concerned the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, a Taiwan-based Chinese studies organisation.

According to David Robinson, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, “I think the difference [between the Confucius Institute and other cultural institutes] is that with the Confucius Institute there’s clearly strong delineated things that you cannot talk about in the classroom. I raise the three Ts- Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, they’re the three brokered subjects. Those things are not permitted to be discussed and the problem is that universities are supposed to be places where we can have complete, robust, rigorous discussions that touch upon academic freedom, that touch upon world affairs, that touch upon controversial issues and if we have to put limits on that, I don’t think there’s any room for that kind of institution on a university campus.”

Marshall Sahlins agrees. “For all their obscurity, moreover, events such as the recurrent suppression of topics that are politically taboo in China in a secondary school CI classroom in the US are of major relevance to the question of the academic legitimacy of the Confucius Institute project in general. In the same way, even the prohibition on displaying the Dalai Lama’s portrait in the precincts of the Confucius Institute of the University of Chicago multiplies the significance of interdiction.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, as well as the American Association of University Professors, has come out strongly against the establishment of Confucius Institutes. Delegates passed a resolution at the end of 2013 calling on Canadian universities to cease hosting Confucius Institutes, and for those considering doing so not to continue. McMaster University, the University of Sherbrooke, the University of Mattasoba and the University of Toronto have all ended their associations with the Institute. Organisations such as the Free Tibet campaign have also come out strongly against the Institute programme which, in following the PRC’s official line, does not acknowledge Tibet as a separate entity. Alistair Currie, a spokesperson for the Free Tibet campaign in London, says “Hanban-appointed staff in Western universities will never deviate from China’s official line and CIs carry only officially-approved materials relating to Tibet, such as histories which reinforce China’s position that Tibet has always been a part of China. Foreign people taught Chinese language and Chinese culture by, effectively, the Chinese government will never be taught the Tibetan perspective.”

Accusations of discriminatory hiring on the part of the Confucius Institutes have also been recognised. In 2011 in New South Wales a petition urging for the removal of Confucius Classrooms from public schools received 10,000 signatures and was presented at parliament by the Greens. A spokesperson from the party said “Teachers are recruited from China and paid by the Confucius Institute….They must meet certain criteria, including not having any involvement in Falun Gong”, referencing the religious organisation suppressed by the PRC. The spokesperson went to say, “It is clear that the teachers have been politically vetted and will be deeply prejudiced toward Beijing’s orthodoxy.” Canada’s McMaster University cited similar concerns about exclusion of Falun Gong practitioners from the hiring process.

With all that said, it is difficult to understand why any university would accept a Confucius Institute on their campus at all, let alone a €6 million facility to house them. There is a strong possibility that the Irish government, which is funding half of the €6 million for the facility, sees it as a business opportunity for the country rather than an academic one. Robinson says, “I think the universities, for whatever reasons, under particular circumstances may see this as a good cash infusion, they may see it as a way in which they can reach out and recruit international students, which is a multibillion dollar business these days. I think these are the wrong motivations; it’s not academic motivations, it’s really a chance to get money and to attract a potential Chinese student market. I think given all the other needs on campus and given the funding crunch, not just in Ireland but across Europe and also here in North America, it’s not a productive diversion of resources.” UCD has an additional business interest in China, with plans to open a campus in China in collaboration with the Beijing University of Technology.

A spokesperson for UCD said, “Over the past eight years, the UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland has worked closely with the Irish and Chinese Governments, businesses and academic institutions to strengthen the ties between Ireland and China…It will promote and encourage cultural understanding between Chinese and Irish students and staff.” UCD declined to answer further questions on the recent controversy surrounding the Confucius Institute, saying it is not policy to comment on the operation of other universities, and no comment was received from the UCD Confucius Institute at time of going to press.

On the other hand, it is important to note that many academics have no argument with a Confucius Institute that has no part in university curriculums and which operates along the lines of other cultural institutes. Robinson says, “The really important point is we’re not so much opposed to the Confucius Institute, if the Chinese government wants to set up Chinese language and cultural institutions along the lines of Alliance Francaise, or the Goethe Institut, but what’s different here is that unlike the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institut or the British Council is that these are partnerships with universities. Hanban is on campus, they’re buying your academic credibility and in a way it compromises the academic integrity of institutions. Unlike the other cultural institutions that I mentioned, there’s always an element of soft power involved…I’m all for the teaching of Chinese language and culture, it’s a great academic topic to pursue but it should not be left to the inclinations of a foreign government.”

Alistair Currie of the Free Tibet movement agrees. “Chinese culture and language should be taught and the Chinese people themselves have much to contribute to the world’s understanding. [But] The Chinese government is a malign force in the world and institutions of all kinds need to consider both how ethical and how long-sighted it is to make it welcome.”

As protests in Toronto continue and Confucius Institutes around the world are called more and more into question, it is difficult to predict how Ireland and UCD will react to the controversy but for the moment at least, with little publicity surrounding the project and few UCD students aware of it at all, it seems set to continue unhindered. Whether this should be the case is a matter for Irish debate, but if we are to follow the examples of the United States and Canada and accept their experience it is questionable whether UCD should play host to the largest Confucius Institute outside China. Robinson says, “If students and faculty members are concerned about academic integrity and the reputation and the academic freedom of the university, one of the things that they should demand is that the administration release the agreement so that you can see what the agreement actually says, and to ensure that if the institution says that academic freedom, academic integrity is not compromised then the onus is on them to reveal what the terms and conditions of the agreement actually are. If there are any problems with it then I think that students and staff of the university should put a lot of pressure on the university to say there is no room on our campus for an institute that sets the curriculum, that decides who’s hired, that delineates or sets limits on what can be discussed in the classroom and is essentially an arm of the Chinese government.”

Sahlins agrees. “You must take a stand, if you have any regard for the academic integrity of your university. You cannot subcontract teaching and research to a foreign government, let alone one whose actions are inimical to your own intellectual values and principles.” Requests made by the University Observer regarding the details of UCD’s contract with the CI programme in relation to academic freedom and hiring policies have not received response at the time of going to print.

That such an issue is receiving so little coverage by Irish media and that it even exists at all in a modern, neutral country is shocking to many, but Robinson puts it best when he says, “What shocks me is that there are still a handful of institutions that seem to be willing to give up their academic integrity to the highest bidder.” It remains to be seen whether UCD students and faculty will continue to allow such an initiative to go unquestioned- and if it does, with the current controversy across the world, it may impact the academic reputation of the university more than anything the Confucius Institute could ever impose.