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Institutional power

Ubiquitous Confucius Institutes spread the influence of China’s Communist government abroad under the guise of teaching language and culture

Institutional power

A teacher from a Confucius Institute teaches Chinese at a secondary school near Pretoria, South Africa. (Li Qihua/Xinhua/Newscom)

Inside the bustling University of Lagos campus in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Chinese and Nigerian flags fly outside a green shipping-container-turned-building with “Confucius Institute” written in both English and Mandarin. Chinese paper lanterns dangle from the eaves while a white scroll painting of Confucius hangs in the hallway. In a courtyard opposite the institute, senior Bolu Nathaniel sits beneath the shade of a tree and belts out a Chinese love ballad. “Because you are my eyes, you show me that the world is right in front of me,” he sings in flawless Mandarin. After hitting the last note, he turns and says, “The song is called ‘Ni shi wo de yanjing’ (You are my eyes).”

Nathaniel learned the song, which is regularly sung at Chinese weddings, during his two-year study abroad in Suzhou, China. In his sophomore year, Nathaniel had left Nigeria for the first time to study at Soochow University on a full-ride scholarship from the Chinese government. The 23-year-old hopes to work as a translator after graduation.

In 142 countries and regions around the world, Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes are popping up on university campuses from the University of Sydney to Cairo University to Texas A&M. While the United States has largely fixed its eyes on Russian interference, China stands as a greater threat, with more sophisticated technology and greater resources, including billions of dollars to spend on teaching foreigners Chinese. Confucius Institutes are a prime way China spreads its soft power and threatens academic freedom on school campuses.

Take for instance Sonia Zhao, who moved from China to teach at the Confucius Institute at McMaster University in Canada in 2011. Zhao, a practitioner of the banned Falun Gong, said her job contract banned her from practicing her religion.

Although Zhao worked at a top university in a free, democratic country, she hid her faith and self-censored her words in order to keep her job. During her training in China, institute instructors required all new teachers to change the subject if students asked about topics China considered sensitive, like human rights or the status of Taiwan. If students insist, teachers must then repeat the party line that the island is a part of China. After a year, Zhao left the Confucius Institute and filed a human rights complaint against McMaster for legitimizing discriminative hiring practices based on religion.

In 2013, McMaster University shuttered its controversial Chinese language school, one of the first of about 15 schools in the West to do so. Others in the West are also starting to take notice: Concerns over the more than 100 Confucius Institutes across the United States have caused the FBI to investigate some of them. And a draft proposal in Congress would also require the institutes to register as foreign agents.

Yet over in Africa, concerns about Chinese influence are nearly nonexistent as Confucius Institutes provide cash-strapped schools the opportunity to teach students language skills needed to land jobs as trade between China and Africa grows. Most of the schools did not have a China studies program before Confucius Institutes stepped in to help, and many African students like Nathaniel otherwise would never get the chance to study abroad.

Onize Ohikere

The Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. (Onize Ohikere)

BEIJING HAS NEVER BEEN SUBTLE about its purposes for providing Chinese teachers, textbooks, scholarships, grants, and even buildings to foreign universities. In 2009, former propaganda czar Li Changchun described Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.” The founder of the Confucius Institute, Liu Yandong, was formerly the head of the United Front Work Department, which works to win over hearts and minds overseas.

While other countries also fund and staff language and cultural centers overseas, such as France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are unique in that they are located inside existing colleges and universities, they vastly outnumber other language centers, and they answer to China’s government.

The institutes operate under the supervision of the Chinese Language Council International—known as Hanban—which is governed by the heads of 12 Chinese government ministries, including the State Press and Publication Administration (the propaganda department) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hanban writes the textbooks, hires teachers, trains teachers, and appoints the director of each institute. Each year the Chinese government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to open and fund these Confucius Institutes, money critics believe would be much better spent improving dilapidated Chinese schools domestically.

The offer of China-funded programs that could boost enrollment at struggling universities is too good for many to turn down. Beyond the monetary incentives—typically $150,000 in startup funds and $100,000 in subsequent years—schools with good relations with the Chinese government can attract more full-tuition-paying Chinese exchange students.

The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004, and since then, China has opened more than 500 institutes in universities around the world as well as 1,076 Confucius Classrooms in K-12 schools. The United States has the most Confucius Institutes, with more than 100, while Africa has more than 40.

The influence of Confucius Institutes on school campuses goes beyond the classroom: In 2008 Tel Aviv University officials shut down a student art exhibit depicting the oppression of Falun Gong in China out of fear of losing Confucius Institute support. In the 2017 documentary In the Name of Confucius, Confucius Institute students are seen singing a song glorifying Chairman Mao Zedong. Director Doris Liu said it was the same song she sang as a child in a government-run school in China and that her mother sang as a student as well.

“[CI’s] ultimate purpose isn’t academic freedom, so the purpose of the Confucius Institute is fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the university: to have free and open inquiry into different questions,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order.

The University of Chicago was the first U.S. school to close its Confucius Institute in 2014 after more than a hundred professors signed a petition. Its main opponent, Professor Emeritus Marshall Sahlin, argued that by hosting Confucius Institutes, schools “become engaged in the political and propaganda efforts of a foreign government.” Penn State shut down its institute soon after.

Last April, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a 177-page report examining 12 Confucius Institutes in New York and New Jersey and found Chinese teachers faced pressures to present China in a positive light and to avoid sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The result is “a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country.” The institutes also lack transparency: Contracts and funding arrangements between U.S. universities and Hanban are rarely made public.

These contracts stipulate that universities must avoid “tarnish[ing] the reputation of the Confucius Institutes,” a vague condition that could be twisted to mean whatever the Chinese government wants, according to the report. If a school does “tarnish” CI’s reputation, it would lose funds and could face unspecified “legal action.” The paper recommended that all universities close their Confucius Institutes.

In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced the FBI was investigating some Confucius Institutes, which the FBI believes are also used for espionage and to keep tabs on Chinese students. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., sent letters to schools in their states asking them to close their Confucius Institutes. The University of West Florida said it would not renew its contract with Hanban next year.

Three Republican lawmakers (Rubio, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Rep. Joe Wilson) proposed a bill in March that would require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents with the Department of Justice and disclose their funding and the scope of their activities. The proposal would also require schools to disclose funding or in-kind gifts from foreign sources worth more than $50,000. “The goal is transparency by the foreign agents themselves and also by the universities,” Wilson said in a statement. “The American people need to know that they are being provided propaganda.”

THE SITUATION IN AFRICA differs from the West and is more complicated: Confucius Institutes are many students’ only way to learn Chinese, which can unlock more job opportunities for them once they graduate. Plus Chinese-backed scholarships are often the only opportunity for African students to study abroad. Confucius Institutes thus have a greater influence in Africa than in the West: African universities can’t afford to damage their relationship with Beijing or kick out the institutes.

China’s presence in Africa is growing as the world’s second-largest economy invests in infrastructure, sells cheap goods, and starts multinational companies in Africa. Thus it only makes sense for college students there to learn the Chinese language and culture and take advantage of scholarships that allow African students to study at top Chinese universities. The number of African students in China has grown from 2,000 in 2003 to nearly 50,000 in 2015.

For Nathaniel, studying at Soochow University in Jiangsu was an exciting opportunity to meet new people and see what life was like outside Nigeria. “How do they think and what do they think about Nigerians?” Nathaniel wondered. Once there, he admired how much Chinese people seemed to value their language and culture. He learned that Chinese people cared about punctuality and greeted each other with the phrase “Chi fan le ma?” which means “Have you eaten?” He found the tones in Mandarin similar to the tones of his Yoruba language.

Bolu Nathaniel

Nathaniel and a Chinese friend. (Bolu Nathaniel)

While he learned Chinese poems like “Prelude to Water Melody” by Su Shi and the history of the Japanese invasion of China in class, his teachers would change the topic when students asked about Taiwan or the legacy of Mao Zedong. Nathaniel also promoted his own culture in the city by playing African drums at local events and schools. In the future, he plans to translate several Yoruba poems into Mandarin “so they will understand more about Nigerian culture and our way of thinking.”

Mosher believes that one purpose for China’s generosity in providing scholarships and building language schools in Africa may be to help African nationals overlook a variety of other sins. “I think it helps to reduce local resentment of Africans against the Chinese dominance of the consumer market and cases when Chinese supervisors don’t treat African workers well,” said Mosher. The close connection between Confucius Institutes and the State Security means that agents could be identifying “up-and-coming young Africans who would be useful in the future” among their students, he added.

It’s ironic that while the Chinese government is writing textbooks for students in other countries to study, inside China the minister of education, Chen Baosheng, vowed to “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes” out of fear that students would be swayed by “Western values.”

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Jane Lim (center), director of the Confucius Institute at the Community College of Denver, teaches students during a Chinese brush painting class. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Falk Hartig, author of Chinese Public Diplomacy: The Rise of the Confucius Institute, argues that students at CIs aren’t just passive audiences; many like Nathaniel join because they have something to get out of it as well. “We have to think about what China’s intentions are,” Hartig said, “but it’s also important what the audience’s intentions are. … We should think of them as active people who can think for themselves and therefore they are not at the mercy of China’s propaganda.”

Greg Orji Obiamalu, a linguistics professor at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria, acknowledges that China censors what students learn in Confucius Institutes and collects information on the host country. “Everybody knows it’s a way of advancement for them, a way of making them strong internationally,” Obiamalu said. “They’re promoting the language and seeing if they can spread Chinese to all parts of the world. Language is power.”

Yet there are also economic benefits for the students and ultimately Nigeria, he believes. In 2017, 64 students from the Confucius Institute at Nnamdi Azikiwe University received Chinese scholarships to study abroad in China. “If we get our students to go to China, learn some skills, and come back home, wouldn’t that benefit us?"

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

June Cheng

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.


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  •  Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Wed, 04/18/2018 12:01 pm

    China might already have Australia.  Hopefully, they won't be able to take us; however, the opportunites they provide to African students could be part of a dangerous precursor for the world.

    As Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, we have reason to be cautious about the opening of more Confucius Institutes in the U.S. Let's pray that the FBI will protect America well as China gains greater influence throughout the world. 

  • Paula Garcia
    Posted: Wed, 04/18/2018 05:58 pm

    Re:  "The United States has the most Confucius Institutes, with more than 100, while Africa has more than 40." The statement is clear, but it feels a little like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Since Americans tend not to register that Africa is a continent of many nations, it would be nice to avoid the parallel phrases for the U.S. and Africa.  This is really just a picky comment to the editors rather than a comment on the article for posting.