26 May 2019
Xu Lin holds the rank of vice minister, underscoring the importance of her role in China's campaign to project its "soft power". Photo: BBC
Xu Lin holds the rank of vice minister, underscoring the importance of her role in China's campaign to project its "soft power". Photo: BBC

Confucius Institutes boss defends ‘soft power’ program

A high-ranking Chinese official, in charge of promoting the learning of Chinese language overseas, has sought to defend the program from charges that it is being used to stifle academic freedom in universities where it is being implemented.

In an interview with the BBC, however, Xu Lin gave answers that appear to only add to the controversy.

Xu is head of Hanban, or the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, which provides foreign universities with cash grants to set up language and cultural centers called Confucius Institutes.

When asked if Chinese teachers in Confucius Institutes are free from Communist Party control, she said she is certain that they are — because all teachers have to write a report at the end of their postings and are questioned on their return about whether they faced politically sensitive questions from students.

“To her critics, this may sound less like a neutral monitoring exercise and more like evidence of exactly the kind of political meddling she tries to disprove,” BBC’s John Sudworth, the interviewer, said.

There is also criticism about the contracts for Chinese teachers, which stipulate that they should not be members of the banned spiritual organization Falun Gong. In effect this gives China the power to choose teachers on independent campuses based on religious belief.

Xu dismissed the concern, saying that it is simply a matter of Chinese law. 

She said Confucius Institutes should be judged on how they operate in practice, not by reference to abstract principles.

But what if a student of the language class asks about Taiwanese independence?

“Every mainland teacher we send,” Xu said, “all of them will say Taiwan belongs to China. We should have one China. No hesitation.”

So far, Confucius Institutes have now been established on 465 university campuses in 123 countries, the report said. The program is also reaching hundreds of secondary schools.

It has become a part of China’s projection of its “soft power”, the BBC said, an important mission underscored by the fact that Xu carries a vice-minister ranking.

But there is growing concern that the program poses a serious threat to freedom of thought and speech in education.

Last year, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) separately called on universities to stop hosting Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes “function as an arm of the Chinese state” and “advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate”, the AAUP said in a statement.

At one point, Xu voiced regret for having granted the interview. She also demanded that a portion of the recording be deleted. It was about Xu’s involvement in an incident in Portugal, where her organization was among the sponsors of an academic conference.

When she learned that a Taiwanese educational organization was also among the sponsors and its name was included in the event’s program, Xu demanded that the programs be removed.

The conference president decried the “interference” in the activities of an independent academic organization as “totally unacceptable”, the report said.

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