Monday, March 17, 2014

China U. | The Nation

Very interesting read. -Angela


China U. | The Nation

Harper Library, University of Chicago
We were sitting in his office, Ted Foss and I, on the third floor of
Judd Hall at the University of Chicago. Foss is the associate director
of the Center for East Asian Studies, a classic area studies program
that gathers under its roof specialists in various disciplines who work
on China, Korea and Japan. Above us, on the fourth floor, were the
offices and seminar room of the university’s Confucius Institute, which
opened its doors in 2010. A Confucius Institute is an academic unit that
provides accredited instruction in Chinese language and culture and
sponsors a variety of extracurricular activities, including art
exhibitions, lectures, conferences, film screenings and celebrations of
Chinese festivals; at Chicago and a number of other schools, it also
funds the research projects of local faculty members on Chinese
subjects. I asked Foss if Chicago’s CI had ever organized lectures or
conferences on issues controversial in China, such as Tibetan
independence or the political status of Taiwan. Gesturing to a far wall,
he said, “I can put up a picture of the Dalai Lama in this office. But
on the fourth floor, we wouldn’t do that.”

About the Author

Marshall Sahlins

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of...

The reason is that the Confucius Institutes at the University of
Chicago and elsewhere are subsidized and supervised by the government of
the People’s Republic of China. The CI program was launched by the PRC
in 2004, and there are now some 400 institutes worldwide as well as an
outreach program consisting of nearly 600 “Confucius classrooms” in
secondary and elementary schools. In some respects, such a
government-funded educational and cultural initiative is nothing new.
For more than sixty years, Germany has relied on the Goethe-Institut to
foster the teaching of German around the globe. But whereas the
Goethe-Institut, like the British Council and the Alliance Française, is
a stand-alone institution situated outside university precincts, a
Confucius Institute exists as a virtually autonomous unit within the
regular curriculum of the host school—for example, providing accredited
courses in Chinese language in the Department of East Asian Languages
and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

There’s another big difference: CIs are managed by a foreign
government, and accordingly are responsive to its politics. The
constitution and bylaws of CIs, together with the agreements established
with the host universities, place their academic activities under the
supervision of the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese Language Council
International, commonly known as Hanban. Although official documents
describe Hanban as “affiliated with the Ministry of Education,” it is
governed by a council of high state and party officials from various
political departments and chaired by a member of the Politburo, Vice
Premier Liu Yandong. The governing council over which Liu presides
currently consists of members from twelve state ministries and
commissions, including Foreign Affairs, Education, Finance and Culture,
the State Council Information Office, the National Development and
Reform Commission, and the State Press and Publications Administration.
Simply put, Hanban is an instrument of the party state operating as an
international pedagogical organization.

In larger universities hosting CIs, Hanban assumes responsibility for
a portion of the total Chinese curriculum. In the more numerous smaller
hosts, most or all of the instruction in Chinese language and culture
is under its control. Hanban has the right to supply the teachers,
textbooks and curriculums of the courses in its charge; it also names
the Chinese co-directors of the local Confucius Institutes. Research
projects on China undertaken by scholars with Hanban funds are approved
by Beijing. The teachers appointed by Hanban, together with the academic
and extracurricular programs of the CIs, are periodically evaluated and
approved by Beijing, and host universities are required to accept
Beijing’s supervision and assessments of CI activities. Hanban reserves
the right to take punitive legal action in regard to any activity
conducted under the name of the Confucius Institutes without its
permission or authorization. Hanban has signed agreements that grant
exceptions to these dictates, but usually only when it has wanted to
enlist a prestigious university, such as Stanford or Chicago, in the
worldwide CI project.

For all the attention that the Confucius Institutes have attracted in
the United States and elsewhere, there has been virtually no serious
journalistic or ethnographic investigation into their particulars, such
as how the Chinese teachers are trained or how the content of courses
and textbooks are chosen. One difficulty has been that the CIs are
something of a moving target. Not only are Chinese officials willing to
be flexible in their negotiations with elite institutions, but the
general Hanban strategy has also been changing in recent years. Despite
its global reach, the CI program is apparently not achieving the
political objectives of burnishing the image and increasing the
influence of the People’s Republic. Unlike Mao’s Little Red Book
in the era of Third World liberation, the current Chinese regime is a
hard sell. Having the appearance of an attractive political system is a
necessary condition of “soft power” success, as Joseph Nye, who coined
the phrase, has written. The revamped Confucius Institute initiative is
to engage less in language and culture and more in the core teaching and
research of the host university. Still, the working principles of the
CI program remain those of its constitution and bylaws, together with
the model agreements negotiated with participating universities.
Routinely and assiduously, Hanban wants the Confucius Institutes to hold
events and offer instruction under the aegis of host universities that
put the PRC in a good light—thus confirming the oft-quoted remark of
Politburo member Li Changchun that the Confucius Institutes are “an
important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

A 2011 article in The People’s Daily, the organ of the
Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, declared as much,
boasting of the spread of the Confucius Institutes (331 at the time)
alongside other indices of China’s ascent to world-political prominence,
such as its annual growth rate of 8 percent, its technological and
military accomplishments, and its newfound status as the second-largest
economy in the world. “Why is China receiving so much attention now? It
is because of its ever-increasing power…. Today we have a different
relationship with the world and the West: we are no longer left to their
tender mercies. Instead we have slowly risen and are becoming their

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