Confucius Institutes should be harmless.

China's Soft-Power Fail

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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On Oct. 1, the Toronto District School Board became the latest high-profile North American educational institution to sever ties with the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-funded language and culture program. It was quite the spectacle: Large crowds of competing protesters squared off outside after security guards locked them out of the hearing. "If the Chinese government is attempting to infiltrate us," said Pamela Gough, a school board trustee who argued in favor of terminating the relationship, "we have to resist with all our might."

This was not the reception that the Chinese government had in mind in 2004 when it inaugurated the Confucius Institute program as a means of improving its image abroad and projecting "soft power." The program offers educational institutions ranging from primary schools to universities a range of free resources: instructors, teaching materials, cultural programs, even rent for office space. Currently, the Chinese government sponsors 1,086 programs worldwide, including 458 in the United States and 31 in Canada.

What does China get in return for this largesse? In 2009, Li Changchun, then a member of China's ruling Politburo, explained: "The establishment of Confucius Institutes quickens the international popularization of the Chinese language and strengthens cultural exchanges with various peoples of the world, benefiting China's move toward the world and the world's better understanding of China."

That sounds benign enough. Yet the Confucius Institutes haven't always behaved in such a high-minded manner. In August, for example, program head Xu Lin ordered her staff to remove materials "contrary to Chinese regulations" from the published program for the European Association for Chinese Studies conference in Portugal. Meanwhile, many academics, and the American Association of University Professors, have expressed concern that some institutions have self-censored on issues of concern to the Chinese government in order to maintain their financing. This is a particularly acute concern for smaller schools where Chinese funding might play an outsized role.

Several academic institutions -- including not just the Toronto District School Board, but the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University -- have all severed ties with the Confucius Institutes over the last two weeks due to concerns about academic freedom. If the institutes are meant to be insidious vehicles of Chinese soft-power indoctrination, they're doing a terrible job. In fact, they appear to be causing more damage than good to China's image abroad.

Part of the problem is that individuals tasked with running Confucius Institutes have indeed engaged in petty, often politically-motivated behavior. In 2009, for example, the director of the Confucius Institute at North Carolina State University told Warwick Arden, the university's provost, that a planned visit by the Dalai Lama would disrupt "some of the strong relationships we were developing with China." The event was cancelled -- an action that Arden conceded to Bloomberg was partly spurred by concern over a Chinese backlash.

In other cases, students have felt pressure to avoid controversial topics in class. In a forthcoming paper, the anthropologist Jennifer Hubbert recounts this exchange from her fieldwork studying the institutes:

A particularly telling example was a discussion with two sophomores [who] referred to a lack of discussion about the much-publicized 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on public dissent as representative of the censorship they perceived also taking place in the classroom. ... 'If you ever get into these issues in the class, it gets steered away. 'Wait, there's no Tiananmen Square. Let's talk about fluffy bunnies'

Legitimate concerns are heightened by more generalized nervousness about China's soft-power ambitions. Politburo member Li Changchun has openly referred to the importance of the Institutes to China's propaganda efforts, while no less an eminence than Xi Jinping has advocated a full-on, global multimedia effort focused on "disseminating Chinese values." This reflects an impatience among Chinese officials who see that they've achieved political and economic "hard power," and simply can't understand why they aren't able to command sway over the world's hearts and minds.

If Chinese officials really want to improve their country's image, they should heed their own rhetoric: The best way to improve foreigners' feelings about China is indeed to bring them into direct contact with the country's language and culture. The Confucius Institutes would be more effective -- and inspire less fear -- if they modeled themselves after institutions like the French government-supported Alliance Francaise: places where language and culture are taught, not ideology. Otherwise, Toronto's schools won't be the last to ask them to leave.

Corrects month of Toronto District School Board Decision and spelling of Hubbert's last name.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net