February 16, 2015 7:00 pm JST
China's cultural pedagogy

Western universities close more language institutes

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writer

DALIAN, China -- As part of its strategy for greater international influence, China is spending big on Confucius Institutes, culture and language centers, around the world.

     However, reports that these centers are deliberately pushing Beijing's stance on politically sensitive issues, such as Tibet and human rights, have brought the Communist Party's attempts at public outreach into strife within North American and European universities. Many such institutions have decided against renewing contracts and will close the Beijing-affiliated organizations on their campuses.

     In June, Stockholm University will shut down the Confucius Institute that it opened in 2005. "The Confucius institute in Stockholm has existed for 10 years and has done very valuable work in teaching the Chinese language and promoting Chinese culture in Sweden," the university's vice-chancellor Astrid Soderbergh Widding told The Nikkei. "However, there are problems with hosting an institute funded by a foreign country within the university."

    "We prefer to develop bilateral academic exchange agreements for both research and education. We already have several bilateral agreements in China," the vice-chancellor added. The decision is a surprise, as Stockholm University was the first to welcome one of Beijing's cultural institutes to Europe.

     China launched the Confucius Institute initiative in 2004. It currently operates a total of 476 such organizations in 127 countries in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa as well as Central and South America.

     Confucius Institute Headquarters, a body directly-run by China's Ministry of Education, pays the initial costs of $50,000 to $100,000 for setting up an institute and also dispatches accredited language instructors to teach in each location. In December last year, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of China's Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, celebrated the opening of a Confucius Institute at Hanoi University during his trip to Vietnam. The move appears to be a push by Beijing to expand its network of influence by tying them to diplomatic visits by officials.

     Nevertheless, greater numbers of Western universities are closing the Chinese institutes after becoming wary of the ways Beijing runs its international centers.

     In 2013, the Confucius Institute at Canada's McMaster University, in Ontario Province, reportedly dismissed a Chinese language instructor over connections with Falun Gong, a Qigong-based spiritual movement under intense pressure and scrutiny from the Chinese central government. The university shut down the institute, stating that such practices do not comply with its principles of equality and anti-discrimination.

     Last year, the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University also announced plans to close their Confucius Institutes.

     Despite the closures, China remains positive. "Even now, we have received applications for Confucius Institutes from over 200 universities in 70 countries. Closure has happened to culture institutes run by other countries as well," said an official from Confucius Institute Headquarters.

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