Confucius goes to college
Ireland is home to three of the world's 350 Confucius Institutes, whose mission is to teach the world about China. But when does education become propaganda?
The architect’s model is striking: a four-storey building incorporating features reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda rises above a garden dotted with gazebos. In front stands a huge bronze statue of Confucius casting his gaze over all who pass beneath him. If all goes to plan – the project appraisal was completed last year – this will be the imposing home of the Confucius Centre at University College Dublin, further deepening the university’s links with a sometimes controversial element of China’s efforts to win friends and influence people.
The 2,000sq m facility proposed for Belfield would house not only UCD’s Irish Institute for Chinese Studies but also its Confucius Institute, one of about 350 such cultural outposts based in universities around the world that the Chinese government considers an integral part of its soft power. The project appraisal estimates that to build and equip the centre will cost €7.5 million, of which €5 million would come from the Chinese government and €2.5 million from the Irish exchequer.
The UCD Confucius Institute, which currently operates from a building in the Quinn undergraduate business school on the Belfield campus, was established in 2006 as a joint venture between UCD, Renmin University, in Beijing, and Hanban, an agency of the Chinese education ministry. Officially opened by Zeng Peiyan, then China’s vice-premier, the institute’s primary aim is to work with “government, business and academic institutions in Ireland and China to develop stronger educational, cultural and commercial links between the two countries”.
Some academics in Ireland express unease about having Chinese government-funded bodies embedded in universities here. “Third-level institutions are strapped for funding, so everyone is looking wherever they can, but what are the long-term implications of having an institute sponsored by a totalitarian state right here on campus?” asks one UCD academic.
The UCD connection
The UCD Confucius Institute was the brainchild of Dr Liming Wang who proposed the idea within a week of being appointed director of the university’s Irish Institute for Chinese Studies. Dr Liming had watched with interest as China’s first Confucius Institutes were opened in South Korea and the US in 2004.
“I paid close attention to what they were doing and I decided we needed something like this; we needed support from a Chinese partner university to build up capacity. The Confucius Institute is a vehicle to deliver such support. I wrote to the UCD president, Hugh Brady, explaining how important that would be. A letter was sent to Confucius Institute headquarters, in Beijing, and it was quickly approved.”
The UCD institute is one of three on the island of Ireland. In 2007, a Confucius centre was established in University College Cork in partnership with Shanghai University, but it does not yet have a purpose-built premises. More recently the University of Ulster opened an institute on its Coleraine campus. The growing reach of the Confucius Institutes now includes more than 75 in the US, 14 in France, 13 in Britain and 11 in Germany. By 2020, Beijing wants to have 1,000 such centres dedicated to promoting Chinese language and culture across the globe.