Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Ever heard of a Confucius Institute? What do you think its main objective would be? To explore the teachings of the great Chinese sage and their relevance to today’s world?
Nope, nothing to do with that. Confucius Institutes (CIs) are part of the soft power diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China. The goal is to expand the teaching of Mandarin, Chinese history, politics, culture and dance. There are now 358 CIs and 500 Confucius Classrooms around the globe. These numbers are rising every week.
So what are CIs and what does Beijing hope to achieve by promoting the Chinese way of life? After all, other nations do the same thing. Think of the British Council; the Goethe Institut to teach German and promote the German way of life; the Alliance Française to promote the French language and cultural values; and the Instituto Cervantes to teach Spanish and explore its culture. So basically the Chinese are doing what others do. But are they trying to do something no one else is doing?
China is a new entrant to the world stage. The image of the People’s Republic until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 was pretty grim. The Cultural Revolution (in reality it had nothing to do with culture) was met with incomprehension abroad. How could a country with such a long cultural tradition deliberately set out to destroy that culture? Here we touch on a neuralgic point. The Cultural Revolution is off the agenda in the CIs. Textbooks on recent Chinese history omit the period. The Great Leap Forward (1958-61) which led to the death of at least 40 million Chinese is also absent. Needless to say the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 is not considered. There are two other taboos: Tibet and Taiwan.
Hence Chinese teachers have a difficult task when discussing the development of modern China. Only a sanitised version is permitted. There are 81 CIs and 299 Confucius Classrooms in the United States. Some American parents and students have complained about the biased interpretation of modern China. This has led to schools in California, for instance, demanding that the textbook on contemporary China be withdrawn and a more objective assessment substituted.
CIs also work closely with some Centres of Chinese Studies in leading British and European universities. There are now 122 CIs in Europe.
The teachings of Confucius are not explored in the CIs. This has led to some confusion but the average student presumes that lectures are suffused by Confucian norms. It was an astute move to name the institutes after Confucius, a world respected Chinese sage. Imagine the impact of a Mao Zedong Institute!
Chinese diplomacy is now bent on going global and the CIs are part of the cultural aspect of the 12th Five Year Plan. Special attention is being paid to Africa and Latin America. Students are keen to learn Mandarin which will qualify them for a job in the expanding trade with the Middle Kingdom. These students are more likely to ignore the bloody parts of the history of the People’s Republic. Human rights issues do not figure high on their agenda. They want jobs.
By 2050 three languages will dominate world trade and politics: Mandarin, English and Spanish. Beijing is expanding the CIs quickly in order to improve China’s image in the world. This is important as Chinese leaders are often perturbed by the negative impact their country arouses in the outside world. Xiexie he zaijian or thank you and goodbye.