“Confucius Institutes are not about Confucius”

If anyone is qualified to make that argument, it’s The Useless Tree. Following news that a number of CI scholars will need to leave the US to reapply for correct visas, The Useless Tree looks at exactly what the CI is, and why the Global Times editorials on the subject are nonsense:

They are not about Confucius. Rather, the PRC government has chosen to use the name of Confucius as a trademark of sorts for a global soft power branding project. The Institutes, most of which in the US are hosted by colleges or universities, focus on language learning, with a variety of other cultural activities: Lunar New Year parties: calligraphy; a little Peking Opera; etc. As far as I can tell – and I have been in conversation with many US academics who have CIs on their campuses (my college does not have one) – there is no systematic effort to engage with Confucian thought in any serious manner.

Indeed, I find no direct reference to Confucius the man and thinker on their English language web page; though there is a little video on Hai Rui, an upright bureaucrat from the Ming Dynasty (no mention is made of the fact that his story was central to the initiation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966). The Confucian-killer Qin Shihuangdi seems to get more attention there than Confucius himself. Bottom line: CIs are not the place to go if you want to learn about Confucianism.

And there are ironies here. The Chinese Communist Party, born of the anti-Confucian radicalism of the May 4th period and vehemently anti-Confucian up through the 1970s, is now reaching for The Master as a happy, avuncular image to adorn a most un-Confucian authoritarian-capitalist modernity.

In any event, to get back to the recent controversy…

About a week ago the US government issued a policy directive indicating that the visas for some Chinese nationals working at Confucius Institutes in the US might be invalid. The directive is specific and narrowly drawn: the issue involves Chinese nationals whose visa is sponsored by a college and university who then go on to teach in elementary or high schools. It is not an assault on CIs generally. Rather, it is an action to implement existing visa limitations that attached to foreign nationals at college and universities.

There is, however, a long-standing critique of CIs in the US, but is not so much a matter of cultural anxiety as it is a political question. CIs are CCP-sponsored institutions and their mission is to support the soft power of the PRC. The money that flows from the PRC to finance CIs has certain strings attached to it. You will not find an open debate about current political issues in Tibet or Xinjiang being sponsored by CIs. We all know that. The worry is that the political agenda expands further to limit academic freedom. US colleges and universities are very defensive about academic freedom. We don’t like political limitations on academic inquiry. And CIs naturally raise those questions. We should ask those questions and work to ensure that CIs do not violate academic freedom.


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Filed under Confucius Peace Prize, soft power

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