Confucius Institutes (CI), established at universities outside China, are intended to promote a positive image of the country in the world. CI branches are becoming an integral part of the establishments at which they operate, so the universities are in part responsible for the content disseminated by CI. CI branches are not allowed to present topics controversial from China’s perspective. Most universities accept this, because Confucius Institutes allow them to expand their educational offer. However, some establishments, for example in the U.S. and Sweden, have acknowledged that CI activity is at variance with their mission and cancelled contracts with their Chinese partner. Following these examples, Polish institutes of higher education should evaluate their own cooperation with Confucius Institutes.

The
main goals of Confucius Institutes are to teach Mandarin, disseminate Chinese
culture, and promote a positive image of China globally. There are also
Confucius Classrooms, most of which have been established at primary and
secondary schools. By the end of 2017, more than 500 CI branches and 1,100
Confucius Classrooms were operating in 146 countries. Most were in the U.S.
(629 institutions), the UK (186) and Australia (83). Poland has five CI
branches, at Wrocław University, the Jagiellonian University (Kraków), the Adam
Mickiewicz University (Poznań), Gdańsk University, and Opole University of
Technology. In 2018, the CI based at the Jagiellonian University opened a
“Point of Confucius Institute” at the University of Social Sciences and
Humanities (SWPS) in Warsaw.

CI Characteristics

Confucius
Institutes compare themselves to other foreign institutions such as the British
Council (with approximately 115 branches globally) and the German Goethe
Institute (160 branches), which aim to popularise the language and culture of
their home countries around the world. The British Council and Goethe Institute
are supervised by their respective governments and are non-profit
organisations, functioning abroad without links to any institution in the host
country.

CI
branches are organised on a different basis. They are based on trilateral
agreement between a given university in the host country, a Chinese institute
of higher education, and the Office of the Chinese Language Council
International (Hanban). The latter is an institution within the structures
of China’s Ministry of Education responsible for governing and administering CI
branches. Its president and board members are appointed by the Chinese State
Council. Based on the agreement, a foreign establishment provides its CI branch
with an office, personnel and financing. Some of the resources for start-up and
activities are provided and accounted by Hanban.

To
establish a CI branch, a foreign university has to accept the “Constitution and
By-laws of Confucius Institutes”. They include obedience to local laws, but
with respect to Chinese regulations. Authorities of the host institute are
responsible for the interpretation of these regulations, and for settling any
disagreements that may arise. The regulations state that the person in charge
of managing a CI branch should be knowledgeable about China and fluent in
Mandarin. In practice, this means that any given CI branch has two leaders: a
Chinese citizen and a representative of the host institution. Once established,
a CI branch becomes an integral part of the foreign university at which it is
based. In this way, universities assert the credibility of the CI and take part
of the responsibility for the content that is disseminated.

Methods of Operation

CI
branches provide institutes of higher education with Mandarin classes, student
and scholar exchanges, and free access to educational materials and
publications about China. For universities, this is of great help in broadening
their educational offer and reaching out to new students. For example, the City
of Chicago decided that Confucius Classrooms would be responsible for teaching
Chinese in the local authority schools. Confucius Institutes also provide state
Mandarin language exams. They organise exhibitions, concerts and conferences on
culture and tradition, but also on the situation in contemporary China.

CI
activities are diversified, depending mostly on the region in which they work.
In many countries (mostly African or Asian), their offer complements China’s
bilateral relations. High-level visits are supposed to highlight the CI’s
achievements, or to coincide with the opening of new branches. Examples include
the agreement on the new CI in Gambia, signed during Gambian President Adama
Barrow’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, December 2017.

In U.S.
and European states, CI goals are slightly different. In these countries,
Mandarin courses and the popularisation of content about China are intended to
counterbalance negative information presented in the public debate. By its
selection of topics and dissemination of positive (or neutral) information, CI
branches seek to prove that critical opinions are unjustified and cooperation
with China is nothing more than an opportunity for all sides. An example of
this approach was the presentation of a Chinese-Hungarian dictionary, prepared
by a CI branch, to prime minister Li Keqiang’s during a visit to Hungary in
2017. In Poland, CI branches in Opole and Gdańsk have organised seminars and
meetings on the positive aspects of the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

CI
branches present the situation in China subjectively. Ethnic and cultural
diversity is promoted, but only in a manner approved by the Communist Party of
China (CPC) and in such a way as to focus on the domination of the Hans.
Stereotypical elements of Chinese culture (such as tea making and calligraphy)
are emphasised. Issues such as the Uyghur minority, ethnic Tibetans (in the
context of their native languages), the events of June 1989, and Chinese
dissident Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, which are equally important aspects
of contemporary China, are absent from the CI programmes. Chinese language
teachers working at CI branches are prepared to avoid questions on
controversial issues. Links and topics presented on CI websites refer to
information domains dominated by positive information on China.

International Reaction

Such
activities raise concerns, especially in the United States, where CI branches
are accused of disseminating propaganda. Preparations for a draft law requiring
CI branches to be registered as foreign agents began in March 2018 and have
since progressed. One of the reasons for this was the establishment of CPC
cells by Chinese students at American universities, and pressure to change
course matter considered controversial from China’s perspective.

In
August 2018, the University of North-Florida terminated its four-year-old
agreement with its CI branch, stating that CI activity was incompatible with
the university’s mission. In the same month President Donald Trump’s
administration introduced a ban on Pentagon funding for university projects
involving Confucius Institutes. Other universities have also withdrawn from
cooperation with CI branches, citing a variety of reasons such as
inconsistencies with university missions, laws and curriculums.

Conclusions for Poland

CI
branches are tools of Chinese soft power, whereby China’s authorities seek to
influence public debate in the host country, exploiting the credibility and
authority of universities. Five Polish institutes of higher education
established cooperation with CI branch, not just for financial reasons, but
also out of a desire to broaden their educational offer. However, concerns
about sharing responsibility for Chinese content prevented the establishment of
the CI at Warsaw University. The case at SWPS is specific, because the is a CI
Point in a sub-branch of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (although the
Warsaw CI Point is not fully bound by the rules which apply to the Kraków
organisation). It is currently difficult to evaluate whether SWPS will be
allowed to present comprehensive and reliable content on modern China.

Due to
concerns about CI activities, one possible solution could be to limit branches
to teaching Mandarin. However, Hanban approval of such a solution
is unlikely. The same applies to the potential separation of CI branches from
universities making them independent institutions. It is likely that Hanban disapprovals
were one of the reasons that some foreign universities cancelled their CI
contracts.

A
solution in Poland could also be to increase funding for university research on
China, dissemination of contemporary information about the country, and
language teaching. Such a programme could be based on EU funds, as in the case
of the University of Łódź. In this way, the establishment of CI branches would
be less important for universities as a means of improving their educational
offer, gaining new students and intensifying academic exchanges with
China. 

This text was originally published in PISM Bulletin

Author Details
Marcin Przychodniak is an Analyst at Asia-Pacific program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), focusing on Chinese politics. Anastas Vangeli is a doctoral researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
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Marcin Przychodniak is an Analyst at Asia-Pacific program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), focusing on Chinese politics. Anastas Vangeli is a doctoral researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
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