Confucius Institutes: Shun Them or Engage
ChinaFile is hosting a debate on China’s Confucius Institutes — Beijing’s “gift” to universities in America and elsewhere that teach Chinese, culture and a dose of soft power. Beijing pays, sets the rules, assigns the staff. The debate is here. It was sparked when the American Association of University Professors issued a strongly negative statement, “recommending that universities cease their involvement in Confucius Institutes unless the agreement between the university and [China’s] Hanban is renegotiated …”
My contribution to the debate is towards the bottom, but I’m reprinting here. I take a somewhat different view…
The arguments against the Confucius Institutes are eloquent and impassioned. But let’s try a thought experiment in a different direction.
Let’s cast our minds back some 60 years to the United States in the mid-50s: Senator McCarthy was rampant and Professor Napthali Lewis had his Fulbright grant yanked because his wife—yes, his wife, not even he himself—refused to say if she were a Communist. Senator Fulbright himself said Communists should not be grant holders!
Today, most of us view Fulbright grants as “soft power” of the softest and most benign kind. Freedom from pressure is supposedly assured by an independent presidentially-appointed commission (though one might wonder how truly free from political pressure any commission appointed by a president, whether Chinese or American, can be). Sixty years ago, that freedom from pressure was not in any way assured, and, in fact, in some cases the pressure was overt and bowed to.
Should the Fulbrights have been killed off or shunned in 1954 because of that? Should universities and faculties have refused to participate?
Or should they have worked steadily to change society and the Fulbrights until they became what they are today—which is, one hopes, still just a way-station to further improvement in both.
America’s road from 1954 to 2014 has been long and sometimes fraught. China’s changes too in those 60 years have been breathtaking, of course, and yet Chinese society is still not yet where some of us might want or expect it to be.
By all means, universities must be completely transparent and vocal about the Institutes’ funding agreements and any pressures, subtle or overt. Universities must encourage vigorous debate and teach-ins about Tiananmen and Tibet and Falun Gong even if these aren’t held at the Institutes themselves. The debates will resonate; the transparency will have an effect. It just might not be tomorrow.
I wasn’t alive to experience the America of 1954; I won’t be alive to see the China of 2074. But I want to have some small influence on that journey, and I believe active, moral, transparent engagement is much preferable to punitive shunning.
We may find China’s early acts of soft power to be clumsy or even abhorrent, but we should remember that these are early steps, and with engagement will come change and understanding on all sides.
In the interests of my own transparency I should say that I advise CCTV News Content, the news agency arm of China’s state broadcaster. While some might see this as compromising my objectivity, I see it as practicing what I preach: my advice, whether taken or not, is always consonant with my personal values around freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And, in time, I hope it will have an effect.