The Confucius Institutes are in themselves a good thing, as an international cultural presence for China and an exercise in soft power. Canadian universities and colleges, however, should refrain from partnerships with them, as they are bound to include a propagandistic element inconsistent with liberal education.
The name itself is salutary. Mercifully, they are not called the Mao Zedong Institutes. The Chinese Communist Party is now willing to associate itself with a name that suggests ethics, scholarship and traditions that go back long before Marx, Lenin and Mao. Somewhat similarly, a few years after the Second World War, West Germany renamed the Deutsche Akademie as the Goethe-Institut, with admirable connotations of humanism and high culture – rather than murderous totalitarianism or even blood-and-iron Bismarckian nationalism.
The Confucius Institutes are thus the Chinese equivalent not only of the Goethe-Institut, but also of the British Council, the Alliance Française, the Società Dante Alighieri, the Instituto Cervantes and so on. A wider and deeper knowledge of Chinese language and culture outside China is desirable for many reasons, and mutually beneficial for Chinese and non-Chinese alike.
But the Confucius Institutes have consistently chosen to embed themselves inside educational institutions of the host countries, unlike the similar European entities. Perhaps the initial motive was to save money. The effect, however, is that some courses in universities, colleges and high schools in Canada, as in other countries, assert – usually discreetly – the Chinese government's views on Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea, the Taoist religious group Falun Gong and other contentious matters. By contrast, liberal education should provide a free, wide range of views.
The Confucius Institutes are entitled to carry on their work and express the views of the ruling Chinese party. But Canadian educational institutions that have entered into partnerships with the Institutes, including McMaster University, the University of Regina and the University of Sherbrooke, will undermine their reputations. The ostensible heirs of Confucius should stand on their own feet.