Government-backed Confucius Institute Unwelcome at University, Says Canadian Professor
Posted by Author on May 19, 2011
Faculty at the University of Manitoba are concerned their school could become the latest host for a Confucius Institute, a non-profit Chinese language and culture institution funded with the helping hand of the Chinese regime.
Canada is already host to several Confucius Institutes, including one at University of Waterloo where one instructor rallied her students to work together and fight Canadian media’s coverage of the paramilitary effort to crush Tibetan unrest just months before the Beijing Olympic Games.
Prof. Cameron Morrill, president of the U of M Faculty Association, says the union is strongly opposed to having a CI on campus, a sentiment echoed by Asian studies Prof. Terry Russell in the following Q & A.
What is your primary concern with the Confucius Institute?
As an academic who believes in the importance of maintaining academic autonomy and freedom, the CI represents a very direct and serious threat. In the first place, the CI is an agency directly operated by the Beijing government (as part of the Ministry of Education). It is not an arms-length cultural agency like Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute. Because the CIs are generally located on the campuses of universities, and operate under the aegis of universities, this implies that the Chinese government is in effect offering courses on Chinese culture and history with the blessing of the Canadian universities involved.
This is a situation without precedent in Canada, so far as I am aware. Foreign governments often provide funding to universities to support the teaching of their national culture and language, but this is traditionally in the form of grants to existing academic programs with few, if any, strings attached.
To me, and I believe many other Canadian academics, it does not matter which government might be involved, whether it be Finland or Brazil or China, national governments should not be given the means and opportunity to disseminate their version of national history and culture under the aegis of an institution that is mandated to pursue independent and unbiased research.
The Chinese government all too obviously has a particularly distorted version of Chinese culture and history that it wishes the present to the world.
The CI gives Beijing the opportunity to tell its story within the legitimizing framework of foreign universities. This is a brilliant way of serving up a poorly disguised form of propaganda to the young Canadians who attend our universities and colleges. It also serves the purpose of limiting the ability of other voices to tell a different story. That is not what universities in Canada are about.
What impact do you think they will have on the university and its students, Chinese and otherwise?
It is difficult to know the exact impact of a given CI on a particular university and its students. It depends how large the CI is and what kind of courses they are able to teach, as well as what other programs they develop. Obviously, if the CI represents “China” or “Chineseness” on a campus, there will be a strong tendency to accept what it offers as the source of information about the legitimate and true state of affairs about Chinese national issues and Chinese culture in general. This is clearly not a good situation for those who take issue with the official Beijing version of China and Chineseness.
For example, the CI will and must (according to its own statutes) inform anyone who will listen that Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan are now and always have been inalienable Chinese territories. This is manifestly false in historical terms, and for Tibetans, Uyghurs, and 23 million Taiwanese, it is a denial of their fundamental human right to self-determination. The designation of Falun Gong and certain forms of Christianity as “heterodox” and dangerous cults is also not only a slander of those religions, but a clear violation of China’s own constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
But if the CI on campus presents the government’s falsehoods as incontestable truth, students and the university community in general will be forced to accept them as true, or at least remain silent lest they offend the CI personnel (who might decide to leave and take their money with them).
What should be done about China’s efforts to expand its network of Confucius Institutes? Is there a role for government in this?
Recently the Government of India placed a blanket ban on the establishments of Confucius Institutes in that country. The reason being that they simply were not comfortable with the relationship that exists between the two countries, especially considering that China still has ongoing territorial disputes with India.
India is currently seeking to expand its expertise in Chinese language and culture, but they are doing it through their own governmental and academic structures. I would be overjoyed if the Canadian government adopted a similar policy on the CIs.
There is ample reason to believe that China has less than wholesome intentions with regard to Canadian politics, technology, defence strategy, and business. Why would they be spending so much time hacking into sensitive computer networks and courting political and business officials if they were hoping for a completely friendly and transparent relationship with us?
We could say that individual universities should realize the consequences of signing on with the Chinese government, but it is very difficult for university administrations to turn down the money and opportunities offered by the CI. Particularly at universities and colleges that do not have strong Chinese studies programs, the CI looks like a gift from heaven because it seems to promise instant credibility in the area of China relations, something that administrators are under pressure to develop.
So, to a certain extent, we cannot expect universities to have the willpower to turn down the CI, its money and resources, on the grounds of morality and integrity. For that reason, it would be extremely helpful if the federal government, or provincial governments, would step in and defend Canadian academic integrity, not to mention technology and trade secrets, by disallowing the Chinese government, or any other government, from establishing what amounts to propaganda—and potentially intelligence gathering agencies—on our campuses.
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