UCD academics query plan for ‘model’ Confucius Institute
Terms of 50-year agreement for €7.4 million cultural centre ‘a good outcome’, says college
Proposed design for the UCD Confucius Institute: the institutes are designed to promote Chinese language and culture
Liu Yunshan, a member of the central politburo standing committee of the Communist Party of China, at the official laying of the foundation stone of the UCD Confucius Institute, which will open in 2016. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The brochure for UCD’s planned €7.4 million Confucius Institute could not be more enthusiastic. “A landmark modern building,” it reads. “Prominent lakeside setting. At the heart of the UCD campus. Inspired by traditional Chinese architecture.”
But many academics on campus are far from enamoured at the prospect of a major cultural centre part-funded and jointly operated by the Chinese government.
The development is also happening at a time when a number of universities worldwide are ridding themselves of Confucius Institutes. This summer, Stockholm University will become the latest to sever its ties with Hanban, a branch of the Chinese ministry of education which is responsible for a worldwide network of 450 Confucius Institutes.
The Swedish university cited unease over the model of joint governance as a reason for the move. A small number of universities in the US and Canada have also closed down institutes in recent years amid concerns over academic freedom.
The institutes are designed to promote Chinese language and culture, and advocates liken them to the British Council or Germany’s Goethe-Institut. However, critics highlight China’s insistence on the institutes being located on universities, in what is seen as a bid to influence the academic life of host countries.
The UCD Confucius Institute was set up in 2006 and gives courses to about 550 undergraduates and 4,200 secondary students each year. Its planned three-storey headquarters, spanning 2,000sq m, is designed to accommodate a multiple of that.
Memorandums of agreement obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act show UCD is committed to funding the new building by €500,000 a year for the first decade. UCD also assumes “the sole responsibility for its profits or losses by charging language course fees and other programs”.
The deal, signed last October by vice-minister Xu Lin – who is director general of Confucius Institutes worldwide – and UCD president Andrew Deeks, includes a penalty clause for the university if it seeks to close the facility any time over the next 50 years.
Under this clause, the university must pay Hanban the balance of its €3 million contribution to the building at a rate of €60,000 a year based upon the remainder of the 50-year term.
The Government is matching the Chinese contribution for the project, with the remaining €1.4 million coming from UCD funds. The contract states UCD will provide “a set amount of annual fund, which should not be less than the amount provided by [Hanban]”.
RebateThe Irish Times
Asked about the 50-year commitment, UCD said: “The agreement ensured that, should the Chinese Government close down the Confucius Institute programme, there would be no rebate of the grant . . . The repayment of the grant over 50 years without interest, should the partnership cease, was viewed as a good outcome.”
Concerns in academic quarters about the institute stem not just from the possible financial liabilities but also the existing governance structures.
Confucius Institutes are designed to have joint directors – one from Hanban and the other from the host institution, typically a non-Chinese national. In the case of UCD, its Confucius director is Prof Liming Wang, who worked for China’s ministry of commerce before entering academia 15 years ago.
According to one senior academic with experience of university partnerships, this arrangement means UCD “do things in a totally Chinese way and very differently to Confucius Institutes elsewhere”.
Some universities have appointed academics with a strong record of questioning China’s human rights policy as domestic directors to guarantee a plurality of views.
UCC, which hosts the only other Confucius Institute in the Republic, appointed Prof Jackie Sheehan of the school of Asian Studies who has published recent articles on Chinese media self-censorship and the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.
Liming’s close relationship to the Chinese administration was shown last year when he was invited to speak at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. There, he recommended to legislators that the Chinese government should merge its three cultural divisions so “optimised resource allocation and resource- sharing can be achieved”, a report on the Confucius Institute website said.
Liming is also director of UCD’s Chinese studies department, known as the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies (IICS).
Liming, a naturalised British citizen, has repeatedly stated that the Confucius Institute is free from political censorship. “I have no problem hosting something that people might think is politically sensitive,” he told this newspaper in 2010.
Last October, UCD opened a new alumni and development office in Beijing as part of a broader strategy of increasing its international student base. It currently has 600 Chinese students studying in Belfield. It has also developed research and study partnerships with a number of Chinese universities.
Critics of the Confucius Institute within UCD believe such partnerships can be advanced without investing heavily in what is being billed as a “model” institute in the Hanban network. Another senior academic who did not wish to be named said: “The whole thing has been done the wrong way around. Instead of building a building the university should be asking what would actually advance Chinese studies in Ireland.”