Last week, President Xi Jinping addressed the International Confucian Association to mark the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius.
This would have been impossible for a Communist leader in earlier times. During the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong, Confucius was subjected to vilification and contempt.
But the current Chinese president and Communist Party general secretary praised the philosopher as someone who had profoundly influenced Chinese civilization and continues to play a role in Chinese culture.
However, he did not remind his listeners that Mao had launched a nationwide campaign to criticize Confucius and that Red Guards had desecrated the graves of the sage’s descendants in Qufu, Shandong Province.
It may be logically inconsistent for the Communist Party to honor both Mao and Confucius. But the party today is nothing if not pragmatic.
Ten years ago, to enhance its soft power, the Chinese government began to create “Confucius Institutes” for the teaching of Chinese language and culture around the world.
Certainly China would have made little headway if it had named these Mao Institutes, or even Deng Xiaoping Institutes. But by borrowing the name Confucius, it created a brand that was instantly recognized as a symbol of Chinese culture, radically different from the image of the Communist Party.
Its efforts have been hugely successful. So far, China has opened 465 Confucius Institutes in 123 countries and regions — with one in Hong Kong — and plans to have 500 institutes in place by the end of next year, about 100 of them in the United States. Unlike the Goethe Institute or Alliance Francaise, which promote German and French language and culture, respectively, the Confucius Institutes are embedded in overseas universities.
There are also hundreds of Confucius Classrooms that operate in primary and secondary schools.
The Confucius Institutes — and Confucius Classrooms — have been welcomed largely because China provides funding, personnel and textbooks.
But that is also where the problem lies. In recent years, there has been increasing concern that Confucius Institutes erode academic freedom by banning discussion of sensitive topics like Tibet.
Last December, the Canadian Association for University Professors called for ending Confucius Institutes because universities “are compromising their own integrity.” This came after a teacher at McMaster University complained that she had to hide her affiliation with Falun Gong to get her job.
In June, the American Association of University Professors urged U.S. universities to shut down Confucius Institutes or renegotiate contracts to ensure university control over academic matters.
Europeans, too, had problems. A year ago, Gregory B. Lee, board chair of the Lyon Confucius Institute, announced its closure because, he said, its director was “taking his instructions directly from Beijing” and “questioned the content of our courses.”
There was a big storm in July when the European Association for Chinese Studies held a conference in Portugal, with some funding from China. According to Roger Greatrex, president of EACS, Xu Lin, director-general of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, also known as Hanban, objected to the contents of conference literature, especially to mention of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, a co-sponsor, and Taiwan’s National Central Library. As a result, several pages were excised.
Last week, the University of Chicago announced that it was shutting down its Confucius Institute. In a statement, the university said “recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”
It turned out that a Chinese newspaper had published an article about Xu Lin, in which she discussed negotiations with the university.
Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus at Chicago, explained in a letter to the editor of The Nation magazine that the article “fulsomely” praised the Chinese official. It said that after more than 100 senior faculty members signed a petition calling for closure of the Confucius Institute, she sent a letter to the university president saying, “If you want to end the relationship, it’s fine with us.”
That, the article said, “brought panic to the other side, and a quick decision that the university would continue with its Confucius Institute.”
This demeaning depiction of the university convinced it that an equal partnership was impossible.
Thus, Confucius Institutes face suspicion, even hostility, in significant parts of the world as they start their second decade. And yet, it is undeniable that Chinese money makes it possible for some institutions to offer courses in Chinese language and culture — and for students to benefit — that would be impossible otherwise.
Thus, universities considering such a move have to ask themselves whether they have more to gain or lose by hosting a Confucius Institute. That is to say, caveat emptor!
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-bassed journalist and commentator. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1