Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Last week, President Xi Jinping addressed the International Confucian Association to mark the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius, the philosopher denounced and vilified by the Communist Party under Mao Zedong.
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, creating a brand that was instantly recognizable and radically different from that of the party.
Its efforts have been hugely successful. So far, China has opened 465 Confucius Institutes in 123 countries and regions and plans to have 500 in place by the end of 2015. Unlike the Goethe-Institute or the Alliance française, which promote German and French language and culture, respectively, Confucius Institutes are embedded in overseas academic institutions. (There are also hundreds of Confucius Classrooms that operate in primary and secondary schools.)
The program has been welcomed largely because China provides the funding, personnel and textbooks. But that is also where the problem lies. There is increasing concern that the institutes, which have been likened to Trojan horses, erode academic freedom by banning discussion of sensitive topics like Tibet.
In 2007, a declassified report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service pointed to the creation of Confucius Institutes as an attempt to create "positive feelings toward China and things Chinese." In other words, they are an instrument of Chinese propaganda. Indeed, former party propaganda chief Li Changchun admitted as much in 2009, when he described the institutes as "an important part of China's overseas propaganda setup."
While the government says Confucius Institutes are affiliated with China's Ministry of Education, they are actually linked to the highest levels of power. The chair of Beijing's Confucius Institutes Headquarters, also known as Hanban, is Liu Yandong, a Politburo member who was formerly head of the United Front Work Department, whose remit includes overseas propaganda.
This has caused problems in many countries, especially in Europe and North America. A year ago, the board chair of the Lyon Confucius Institute announced its closure. He said its director was "taking his instructions directly from Beijing" and "questioned the content of our courses."
Last December, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called for schools to sever ties with the Confucius Institutes, saying universities "are compromising their own integrity." This came after a teacher at McMaster University complained that she had to hide her affiliation with the Falun Gong spiritual movement to get her institute job. The Toronto District School Board is currently taking action to terminate an agreement under which Chinese programs would be offered to elementary school pupils in the 2014-2015 year.
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.
Last week, the University of Chicago announced that it was shutting down its Confucius Institute, after 100 senior faculty members signed a petition calling for the institute's closure and a Chinese newspaper published demeaning comments about the university attributed to Hanban director-general Xu Lin.
On Sunday, China responded to the growing crescendo of criticism. The official Xinhua news agency conceded that there had been problems "in management style, hiring methods or quality of teachers" but did not mention academic freedom as an issue.
There is an obvious need for Chinese language education around the world and China astutely stepped in to meet that need. But it is equally obvious that Beijing sees the Confucius Institutes as propaganda instruments. Western academic institutions enticed by Chinese money should have no illusions about this motivation.
To resolve suspicion, China needs to meet the issue of academic freedom head-on. It should understand that any attempt to control overseas universities through these institutes will be discovered, publicized and ultimately become counterproductive. On the other hand, its image will be greatly improved if it makes it clear that there aren't any no-go areas for Confucius Institutes.
Meanwhile, Western institutions considering whether to host (or continue hosting) a Confucius Institute have to ask themselves whether they have more to gain or lose by doing so – caveat emptor.