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.

The Confucius Institute model can vary, but host universities are expected to provide premises and a faculty member to serve as administrator. In return the school receives funding from Hanban that includes the facility to apply for extra money for specific projects such as cultural events; bringing language instructors from China; and teaching materials, though the UCC institute produces its own textbooks.

Hanban also funds hundreds of “Confucius classrooms” in second- and third-level institutions. The UCD institute has five Confucius classrooms that work with 43 secondary schools. The UCC facility operates three such programmes with 40 local primary and secondary schools. Both institutes have contributed to the development of Chinese-language teaching in the Irish curriculum. In 2009, the institute at UCD surveyed demand for Mandarin instruction at second level. It has also produced a multimedia teaching pack for transition-year students. The UCC institute recently drew up a proposal for a junior-cycle course in Chinese language and culture.

Concern on campus

Advocates of Confucius Institutes sometimes compare them to the British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, all of which promote their national cultures and languages, but critics point out that the Chinese model is unique in its insistence on being located on university campuses. Several have voiced concern about the role of Hanban. A number of universities in the US have decided against accepting a Confucius Institute.

In June, Prof Christopher Hughes, a China specialist at the London School of Economics, drew the ire of Beijing’s ambassador to Britain when he questioned whether universities should host the institutes. The envoy accused such critics of “cold-war thinking”.

In response, Hughes said he was a firm believer in engagement with China. “But it has to be engagement according to our own ethical principles, or it will not be good for either side,” he argued. “Personally, I think the evidence is overwhelming that the Confucius Institute does not measure up [to the LSE’s new ethics code], because it is openly declared to be a propaganda organisation by the Chinese government, which has a poor record on human rights, and local institutes are subservient to the [headquarters] in Beijing.”

In an article published in The Irish Times in 2010, the UCD professor emeritus of politics Tom Garvin was withering in his criticism. “In UCD there is a thing called the Confucius Institute, which is an agency of the Chinese tyranny,” he wrote. “The Irish taxpayer should know that he’ll pick up the tab for this dissemination of post-communist rubbish.”

Rejecting criticism

Dr Liming Wang rejects such criticism and argues his institute is avowedly nonpolitical. “I am not employed by any Chinese government agencies, and there is no direct government intervention whatsoever or instructions to me as the director of the Confucius Institute,” he says, pointing out he is a naturalised British citizen and receives no extra salary for being director of the institute.

“Our charter here says we are a nonprofit, nonpolitical organisation. Nobody could restrict our activities according to any political agenda.”

A document apparently prepared for UCD Confucius Institute staff doing interviews on the need for a greater focus on Chinese-language teaching in Ireland includes advising on how to deal with questions related to China’s human-rights record. Some of the suggested responses include: “Yes I understand why you may think that way”; “I am not an expert in human rights”; “I have been in Ireland for 20 years so my knowledge is limited”; “Given our background and history”; “Yes, there is room for improvement.”

Asked whether the UCD Confucius Institute would host events dealing with issues such as China’s record on human rights, or Tibet, Dr Liming nods. “My view is that you need to have dialogue rather than trying to avoid or ignore problems. I have no problem hosting something that people might think is politically sensitive. Why not sit together to express our views, even if they are different? There are no subjects off limits whatsoever.”

Prof Fan Hong, the director of the UCC Confucius Institute and head of the university’s school of Asian studies, says her institute has facilitated debates on Tibet and on whether, given China’s human-rights record, Beijing should have hosted the Olympic Games.

“There is academic freedom. We don’t say Tibet and other issues are forbidden subjects,” she says. “I think criticism of Confucius Institutes more generally should be more balanced. There are more than 350 institutes in the world, and the model varies.

“Some have attracted criticism because of the way they work, but what we are doing here is not for Chinese government propaganda; we are here to promote Chinese studies as an academic discipline just like French or Italian studies.”

Confucius the teacher Philosophy and principles

The Chinese thinker, philosopher, statesman and educator Confucius, whose Chinese name is Kongqiu, lived from 551 to 479 BC, and his philosophy has dominated Chinese society for centuries.

His thinking spread to Europe in the late 16th century and Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary to China, is credited with giving him the romanised name Confucius. To Chinese people, he is “Kong Zi”, or Master Kong, “the Master”, or “the Model Teacher for 10,000 years”.

Harmony, respecting your elders and worshipping your parents are essential parts of his philosophy.

His teaching of the family as a basis for government remains strongly etched in the Chinese psyche, though his father died when he was three and he is said to have abandoned his own family to pursue his studies.

Under Chinese law, children are legally obliged to support their parents. At temples of Confucius all around the country, parents burn incense, light candles, pray and leave notes saying: “Please help my child pass the exams.”

More than three million people in China, Korea and farther afield believe they are descended from the philosopher.

A few years ago the China Confucius Foundation published a standard image of him, as an old man with a long beard, broad mouth and big ears, wearing a robe with his hands crossed on his chest. - Clifford Coonan

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