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Why Confucius Institutes Are Good For Democracy

Ten years ago Western university presidents were falling over themselves to be the first in line to attract Chinese government funding for Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture at their universities.

Each Confucius Institute is a partnership between an international university and a partner institution, usually a peer university, in China. The Chinese partner provides the core staff and educational materials. The international university finds the students — not only its own students, but people from the host community as well.

Despite heavy criticism from many of their own academics, university presidents apparently thought that the money was too good to pass up. And not just the money. In countries that had few Chinese immigrants, it was difficult to find enough qualified teachers to staff Chinese language courses. China’s growing economy, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo all stoked student demand for Chinese classes that was difficult to meet without help from China.

The financial details of Confucius Institute contracts are not publicly disclosed, but it is generally assumed that they are highly profitable for the host institutions.


Strings attached?

Critics argue that Confucius Institute money comes with strings attached. There are rumors that the Chinese government threatens to withdraw support for Confucius Institutes if professors at host institutions are critical of China, though there seems to be little evidence for this. Professors at many host universities routinely speak out against the Confucius Institutes themselves, with little apparent impact on their careers.

More credibly, some critics claim that universities that host Confucius Institutes engage in self-censorship, for example by not hiring faculty who are outspoken in opposition to the Chinese government, or by not inviting guest speakers who meet with Chinese government disapproval. Most prominent among these cases are invitations to host the Dalai Lama.

As with Confucius Institute financing, the truth here is hard to ascertain. It seems likely that, as with other large donors, the Chinese government makes its views known when it comes to high profile events like a visit from the Dalai Lama. Even more likely, university presidents might engage in self-censorship by trying to move high-profile critics of the Chinese government to off-campus venues.

Unfortunately, such de-platforming is not limited to critics of China. Western universities are frequently prevented from hosting conservative or “alt-right” speakers due to the threat of student protests, and many university professors (and their unions) attempt to enforce boycotts of Israeli speakers. The main difference between these and the China case is the source of the de-platforming, not the effect.


Politicized books and teachers

On a more subtle level, Confucius Institutes promote a Chinese government-approved world view through the use of Chinese teaching materials and the secondment of teaching staff from Chinese partner institutions. Confucius Institute teaching materials routinely portray Taiwan as a province of China, Tibetans as a national minority group within China, and China itself in a positive light.

But it seems natural enough that Chinese partner institutions would use their own everyday teaching materials in their work with international host universities. There seems no reason to believe that Confucius Institutes use teaching materials that have been designed specifically as international propaganda. Confucius Institute teaching materials are informed by a Chinese world view as a matter of course, not as a matter of design.

In the same way, Chinese teachers employed by Confucius Institutes are likely to have internalized a government-approved world view. In all likelihood, most of them sincerely believe in that world view. In pluralistic Western societies, there should be room for such world views, even though today’s China — which lacks Western pluralistic values — does not always reciprocate.


Changing the change agents

Ultimately the main moral objection to hosting Confucius Institutes is that the world view they incorporate (and are designed to promote) is not the uncoordinated set of mutually overlapping values of a pluralistic society but the coordinated value set of a one-party state. That is a weighty objection.

Yet Western critics may be too quick to assume that Confucius Institute staff are unthinking agents programmed to disseminate Chinese government propaganda. Some may in fact be committed Chinese Communist Party ideologues. But most people — Chinese or Western — are much more interested in things like international travel, clean air, good food, and educational opportunities for their children than they are in spreading a particular world view.

Clearly, the Chinese government’s intention in funding Confucius Institutes is to influence Western perceptions of China. Like all government initiatives, the Confucius Institutes must face the challenge of unintended consequences. Of course, Confucius Institute teachers will use officially approved teaching materials. But will they advocate pollution over clean air? Corruption over open government? One party rule over democracy? It’s difficult to know.

What we do know is that Confucius Institutes create opportunities for thousands of Chinese academics and administrators to experience life in Western countries, send their children to Western schools, and work alongside Western colleagues. Values rub off, and the best way to learn democracy may be to live it.

The Chinese government funds Confucius Institutes to spread Chinese values. But the Chinese employees of Confucius Institutes may have other priorities. Ultimately, the values they take back to China may be more influential than those they leave behind. On balance, that seems a fair trade. Confucius Institutes enrich Western democracies with a greater understanding of China. Western hosts have the opportunity to give China something even more valuable in return.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: