In the past, the Chinese Communist Party worked hard to suppress the legacy of Confucius. But in recent years it has been making extensive – and some would say cynical – use of the name and thought of the renowned philosopher, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. The most salient example is the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, educational institutions which teach the Chinese language and culture and operate in some 150 countries. The institutions are established at the initiative and with the funding of Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is accountable to China’s Ministry of Education and represents the interests of the Communist Party.
In recent years, however, the institutes have come under fierce criticism on the grounds that they engage in censorship, disseminate propaganda and restrict academic freedom. More than 20 institutes have shut down as a result, and there are calls for greater transparency from those that continue to operate. According to the official data, 548 Confucius Institutes now operate worldwide, including in Israel, along with 1,193 smaller Confucius Classrooms. In a certain sense, the institutes, which are funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, resemble international organizations that promote language and culture, such as the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute. But a closer examination reveals dramatic differences.
In contrast to their European counterparts, the Confucius Institutes are located within existing academic institutions and operate in tandem with Asian studies departments under a contract between Hanban and the host university. Chinese government funding for each institute can be as much as $200,000 annually. The institutes draw on teaching materials from China and in many cases employ Chinese staff who are paid by their home country. In return, the universities provide office space, computers and access to the students. The contract contains clauses that subordinate the institute to the head office in Beijing; it prohibits activity that is contrary to Chinese laws and regulations.
The lesser allegations against the institutes maintain that their presence on campus, combined with economic, legal and political pressure, restricts academic freedom and leads to self-censorship by students, lecturers and researchers. More extreme allegations hint that the Confucius Institutes are forward positions that serve Chinese interests by collecting information and engaging in industrial espionage under the cover of Chinese language courses, cultural events and academic research.
Eyes on the prize
There are two Confucius Institutes operating in Israel. The first opened at Tel Aviv University in 2007 and the second at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2014. Senior Chinese officials, including the deputy prime minister, Liu Yandong, attended the opening ceremony in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose visit to China a year earlier paved the way for the institute’s establishment, sent a recorded message with greetings.
“The decision to open a Confucius Institute, which is involved in the East Asian Studies Department and is headed by a tenured professor who gets a salary to study China without any pressure, is a distinct and clear conflict of interest,” says Noam Urbach, who teaches Chinese at Bar-Ilan University and is an Asian studies doctoral student at the University of Haifa. “There’s no reason to open an institute of this kind in the university, or for its cooperation with the department, other than to engage in censorship, exert pressure and limit academic freedom.”
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Urbach cites a number of issues in the study of contemporary China that Beijing considers sensitive, which the Chinese authorities make every effort to keep out of public discourse. “Human rights in China, for example, can’t be mentioned,” he says. “Nor can you talk about domestic political problems or about the suppression of minorities such as the Uyghur community,” a reference to the persecuted Muslim group in the country.
“China can open whatever institution it wishes, from Mount Hermon to Eilat,” says Urbach, “But to allow it to operate within a university is like letting Likud open a [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky Institute in the political science department.”
Even though pressure on the local universities is not absolute and the influence emanating from Beijing can be restrained, Urbach believes it is impossible to ignore the negative effects. The academics who research these issues are liable to pay a price. One of Israel’s leading sinologists, Prof. (Emeritus) Yitzhak Shichor, was blacklisted and blocked from visiting China after he contributed to a book of essays about Xinjiang, an autonomous territory of the Uyghur people in northwest China.
“In 2000-2001 I took part in a research project about Xinjiang, which was conducted at Johns Hopkins University,” Shichor says. “A Chinese professor claimed that the project encourages Uyghur isolationism in Xinjiang, which was absolute nonsense. In the wake of his complaint, the Chinese leadership decided to blacklist all 16 participants. I was the only non-American. For 15 years, with the exception of one year, I couldn’t get a visa for China.” Three years ago, he says, something changed. “I was asked to help with the establishment of an institute for Middle East research in Sun Yat-sen University in southern China. After that, not only did I receive a visa and get invited to conferences, I also received comfortable conditions. A few weeks ago, I was awarded a lifetime achievement prize by the China Cultural Center in Israel.”
Shichor doesn’t think that the Confucius Institutes affect the academic discourse concerning China in Israel. “To the best of my knowledge, the institutes do not bring about censorship or affect academic freedom in the universities,” he says. “I am convinced that such censorship does exist in regard to the activity of the Confucius Institutes themselves, but ‘sensitive’ issues for the Chinese are handled freely in Israel as long as they do not involve funding by Confucius Institutes. To the best of my knowledge, China makes no attempts to influence the Israeli public on these issues".
But Urbach finds it difficult to agree. “There is tremendous self-censorship among researchers of China in Israel,” he observes. “It goes well beyond the dreams of every cadre in the Communist Party.” He cites as an example the fact that Israeli students who did not want to endanger their participation in the institutes’ programs – which offer scholarships, student exchanges and trips to China – opted to stay away from a meeting with the author of an important report on Chinese government suppression of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice. There are allegations in the international community that Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to “reeducation camps,” that hundreds have been executed and that they are subjected to organ harvesting for commercial purposes.
“The Confucius Institutes distribute coveted scholarships for studies in China, and students are afraid that they will lose out on a scholarship if they’re reported to have participated in a conference of that kind,” continues Urbach. “The institutes have the right to operate like that, but why should an East Asian studies department cooperate with them? … The university’s interest does not lie in the annual budget of $100,000 or $200,000 – that’s peanuts. What’s important is the potential for other agreements in hefty areas such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. It’s important for universities to receive research budgets from China and postdoctoral students from Chinese universities. That’s the real motivation.”
‘Separate and distinct’
Various sources, including Chinese exiles, international intelligence agencies and independent researchers alike have accused the Confucius Institutes of engaging in industrial espionage, collecting information and exerting pressure on Chinese citizens living outside the country, and collaborating with the United Front Work Department, a mysterious agency under the auspices of the Communist Party in China and elsewhere. Even if these claims are exaggerated, one cannot deny the influence wielded by the Confucius Institutes on the discourse about China, which senior Chinese official Li Changchun described in 2009 as “an important part of China’s propaganda apparatus abroad.”
Dr. Lihi Yariv-Laor, head of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University, rejects such allegations outright. “The researchers and professors here enjoy full academic freedom,” she says. “To this day, during the five years of existence of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University, the Chinese side has not dictated anything to us.”
Yariv-Laor, a former head of the university’s Department of East Asian Studies and until 2018 the academic chairwoman of both the Education Ministry’s committee on Chinese studies and the Council for Higher Education’s steering committee to further Israel-China relations, maintains that the status of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University is unique. As opposed to most institutes, the branch in Jerusalem is research-oriented and does not engage in teaching the Chinese language or culture, which have been taught in courses elsewhere in the university for years. In addition to Yariv-Laor, the institute’s staff consists of an associate director sent from Beijing’s Peking University and an administrative coordinator. The salaries of the Israeli employees are paid by Hebrew University while the associate director’s salary is paid by Hanban.
“Hanban supplies the institute with materials, books, decorations and various accessories such as calendars,” Yariv-Laor says. “It does not dictate the use of any textbooks. The teachers of the Chinese language, who are subordinate to the Hebrew University’s languages unit, decide exclusively about the curriculum.” She adds, “Never have we received from anyone in China a directive about which issues to address and which issues not to address, and there are no Chinese guidelines according to which the institute operates. The criteria for prizes and scholarships are also decided by the Asian studies professors alone. They are academic criteria, according to the university’s rules, and they have nothing to do with any body in China.”
In addition to academic activities, Yariv-Laor says, the institute offers financial support for Asian studies students who give talks on China in high schools in and around Jerusalem, and organizes transportation for high-schoolers who study Chinese in the Jerusalem area. The institute also supports a two-week study tour in China for Israeli teenagers.
Her views are echoed by Prof. Asaf Goldschmidt, an East Asian studies professor at Tel Aviv University who heads the Confucius Institute there. “There are no direct or hidden restrictions on subjects for discussion at the Confucius Institute,” he explains. “The content of academic conferences is decided solely by the organizers of the conference or the organizing committee. We have never received a ‘grocery list’ of subjects that may or may not be discussed, and to this day, to the best of my knowledge, no restrictions or censorship have been imposed on the institute’s activity, and of course not on the activities of the East Asian Studies Department.”
The Confucius Institute at Tel Aviv University is funded by Hanban and operates in cooperation with Renmin University in Beijing, whose representative is part of the institute. According to Goldschmidt, the partnership takes the form of scientific conferences, student exchanges and reciprocal visits by faculty members; the department at TAU and the institute are two separate and distinct entities.
“The department, its students and its researchers often deal with controversial subjects,” Goldschmidt adds. “A salient example is a conference the department recently held in which a whole session dealt with issues of minorities in a completely open way.”
Rising tide of opposition
Several prominent incidents raised suspicions about the Chinese bodies in charge of research and education. In New Zealand, accusations were leveled at the Chinese authorities when burglars broke into the home, office and car of researcher Prof. Anne-Marie Brady after she published studies about Chinese policy in Antarctica and China’s use of “soft power” in the West. According to reports in the local media, the burglars only took her computers and cellphone but ignored other valuables.
In another headline-making incident in 2014, the director of Hanban ordered her staff to tear out pages containing information about academic institutions in Taiwan from a conference program in Portugal. In 2017, China stopped funding Chinese scholars studying at the University of California, San Diego after it hosted the Dalai Lama.
Yet another highly publicized incident occurred in 2008, when a photography exhibit about the suppression of the Falun Gong movement was removed from Tel Aviv University. Following a lawsuit filed by the exhibit’s organizers, the court ordered the university to remount the show and pay the organizers 45,000 shekels (about $11,000). The judge noted that the decision to remove the exhibit was made in part after pressure, apparently from the Chinese Embassy, was brought to bear on the dean of students.
A particularly fraught case happened a number of years ago in Canada, which is home to many Chinese immigrants. In 2012, the Toronto District School Board signed an agreement with the Chinese government to fund a branch of the institute that would offer Chinese language instruction to hundreds of thousands of Canadian students.
“The agreement wasn’t made public and didn’t get media coverage, even though it was supposed to bring about the establishment of the biggest Confucius Institute in the world,” says Doris Liu, a Canadian film director who made a documentary on the subject in 2017, called “In the Name of Confucius.” “In 2014, the festive opening ceremony [of the institute] was held in the presence of senior figures from China. At that stage, the public became aware of the program and a protest started by parents who were concerned that their children would be brainwashed.”
The protest quickly gained momentum. There were letters and petitions, Liu relates, and panicky conversations with members of the schools’ boards of directors, together with fierce demonstrations. Liu’s film documents the dramatic struggle and its protagonists: a Chinese teacher who defected from the institute and was granted asylum in Canada; a senior figure in the Canadian education system who had worked to develop the ties with the Chinese and resigned for vague reasons; and a Canadian intelligence official who warned that the institute would be a Trojan horse and claimed that Chinese-Canadian organizations were faking popular support for the institutes.
The parents were victorious: Not long after the institute’s inauguration, the agreement was canceled. Naturally, the Chinese were not pleased with Liu’s film, and she says they are still trying to prevent it from being shown. “A screening at Victoria University in Melbourne, which has a Confucius Institute, was canceled. The Australian press discovered afterward that the cancelation was due to the intervention of the Chinese consulate,” she says, adding that the Chinese also tried to interfere with screenings in New Zealand and Japan.
Public criticism in Toronto resonated beyond the city and brought about the closure of other Confucius Institutes in Ontario and in Quebec. And Canada is not alone: More than 20 other institutes have shut down in recent years, including ones at the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University and other colleges in Texas and Florida. Institutes in Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany have also closed.
The first Confucius Institute in Europe, established in 2005 at Stockholm University, also shuttered in 2015. Alberto Tiscornia, the head of the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern and Turkish Studies, emphasizes that the institute closed due to “legal difficulties and issues of proper administration.” The reason for an end to the cooperation, he explains, “was the problematic character of hosting an institute that is financed by another country on the university’s grounds.” The case sparked criticism in the media and a demonstration by Chinese exiles.
“There is a certain naiveté amongst university bureaucrats in the West. In China’s political reality there are no independent units, they are all managed by the [Communist] Party down to the smallest detail,” the Swedish journalist Ingvar Oja wrote. “The teachers who are sent abroad are handpicked by the party and are party loyalists.”
The complexity of the ties with China may be gleaned, perhaps, from comments by Prof. Daniel Leese, an expert on Chinese history and politics from the University of Freiburg in Germany.
“After June 4th [the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989], many said we should cut our ties with China,” he says. “But how should we then keep in dialogue with the Chinese at various levels? Confucius Institutes like the ones here in Germany make the connection possible. Cross-cultural dialogue is always complicated, but the people in the institutes are individuals, and if you do it properly, real dialogue is possible. The party doesn’t have total control of what Chinese citizens think, as is sometimes described in the media. But we should also be aware of the fact that many within the Chinese populace are simply not waiting for liberal democracy to arrive, especially given recent developments in the West.”
Leese is aware of the fact that his research, which focuses on how China’s Communist Party copes with wrongdoings and atrocities that occurred during Mao Zedong’s rule, drew the attention of the authorities. There is general surveillance of what he and others are doing, he says. His academic freedom in Germany has not been compromised, he notes, but when he’s in China, pressure is put on people who work with him.
“I have to be careful who I work with,” he explains. “In recent years things have become harder and our access to archives, sources and people to interview isn’t as good as it used to be. Once the rules were clearer; today I’m not sure what things will be like in the years to come.”