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June 2017

‘Spiritual express train’ or propaganda vehicle?

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It’s a love-hate relationship. They both want to be involved with each other, yet there has always been a lingering distrust between them.


And two recent stories to emerge in the world of academe have indicated the age-old tensions between the US and China could continue for some time yet.

Some American scholars, a new report suggests, are becoming increasingly wary of Chinese government influence on their university campuses.
But reports from China indicate its Communist party government is showing the same level of suspicion about western influences in its academic institutions.

A new study by the US-based National Association of Scholars (NAS) has heavily criticised the presence of China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) in US universities, and recommended that universities close or reform them.

The institutes, which started to spring up in 2004, are educational organizations set up by the Hanban, a branch of the Chinese government, to promote Chinese language and culture abroad (see fact box below).

But the American academics are afraid they are being used to spread Chinese propaganda and that they may be compromising western values, such as freedom of speech and democracy.

‘Confucius Institutes don’t overtly force their views on Americans, but behind the appearance of a friendly and inviting form of diplomacy lies a grim authoritarian reality’ said the NAS president Peter Wood in his preface to the report.

There is concern that through the institutes, China is effectively buying its way into education systems and expecting instructors to support its positions and policies.

‘Some [universities] reported an outright ban on discussing subjects that are censored in China,’ the report says. Emily Metzgar, an academic who has studied US media coverage of the institutes, said much of the suspicion around them has come from the fact the terms of agreement between CIs and American universities are not public (see below). But opponents, she said, had become ‘hardened in their perspectives’ and a ‘more nuanced approach’ to the issue was needed.

Those in favour of the institutes claim they are not a threat to academic freedom and do not have sufficient levels of influence to have a detrimental impact on American values by changing people’s opinions.

The Confucius Institutes’ objective, Hanban’s news website said, is to build a ‘spiritual express train connecting China with the people of the world’ by teaching about language and culture.

But the Chinese government seems more nervous about this ‘spiritual express train’ when the rails lead east.
A report in the UK’s Financial Times last month said that teams of inspectors have been parachuted into China’s 29 top universities, tasked by its government to look for examples of breaches of ‘political discipline’. These include ideological problems and infiltration of ‘western values’ such as democracy and freedom of speech.

Most of the top universities in China have courses and study centres set up in partnership with western universities, including Stanford, NYU, Duke and Cornell in the US, and Nottingham and Liverpool universities in the UK.

In recent years, many Western universities have been setting up programmes in China, as they bring in much-needed income and serve as marketing and recruitment tools for Chinese students, who usually pay higher fees than domestic students.

It is not yet clear what the outcome of these inspections has been and whether any staff have been ejected or courses cancelled. These two most recent stories suggest the complicated relationship between the US and China makes it difficult for each country not to feel threatened by the other when it comes to the battle for people’s minds.

The culture clash of democracy and free speech versus a one–party system means, at least for now, an atmosphere of suspicion will pervade the halls of academe for some time to come.

Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, is available at NAS.org

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