CHINA: by Ian H. McDougallNews Weekly
Institute accused of being Beijing's mouthpiece
, October 30, 2010
When Jon Stewart, host of the popular left-leaning American late night comedy and current affairs offering The Daily Show, highlighted vigorous public protests over the opening of a Confucius Institute in a Californian school in October, it brought into the open a simmering dispute over the legitimacy of China's soft power push.
The Confucius Institutes were founded by the Communist Government of China to spread Chinese language and culture throughout the world. Now, some 282 Confucius Institutes have been established throughout the world, along with 272 smaller Confucius classrooms in an astounding 88 countries, including Jamaica, Ethiopia, Romania, Israel, Dubai and Jordan. Australian universities hosting Confucius Institutes include the University of Western Australia, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne.
The willingness of Australian educational institutions to host the Confucius Institutes - many would argue at the cost of their academic integrity - is to do with money and demand. The Confucius Institute at the University of Melbourne is funded in part by donations from Australian industry, one of the few such arrangements.
The success of the Confucius Institute is due to the seemingly insatiable demand for information about China, spurred by China's success as an importer and exporter. China, apart from being Australia's number one export market, is now the second biggest economy in the world and, at current rates of growth, will overtake the United States to become the world's largest economy within less than 20 years.
It is no accident that the Chinese government has chosen to trade on the name of Confucius in naming its soft power outreach organisation. Confucius is the greatest Chinese sage, honoured for generations for his ethics and moral precepts on which Chinese governance has been traditionally based. Confucius was reviled during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution as part of "old" China. With the end of this outbreak of national madness, Confucius has been rehabilitated.
Not only economic motives have been behind the revival of interest in Chinese culture. The Latinised name "Confucius" was coined by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit scholar who brought the learning of China to the West. So influential were the Jesuits at the Chinese imperial court that, had not the Chinese Mass been proscribed and the Society of Jesus dissolved, it is possible China could have become Catholic.
Confucius was born in modern-day Shandong province, the son of a local war-lord. From an early age, he distinguished himself as a scholar. He made a living offering advice to the rulers of the day, a time of great disturbance in China. In reaction to this, Confucius advocated moral and ethical government, aiming for a harmonious and peaceful "great commonwealth".
Confucius, known in Chinese as "Kung Tse" or "Kung Fu Tse", meaning Master Kung, lived from 551BC to 479BC, and has the oldest known lineage and pedigree of any person. Traditionally, his senior lineal descendent has been known as the Duke of Kung. His youngest known lineal descendent was born in Taipei on January 1, 2006. In all, Confucius has over two million descendents.
The Confucius Institute is a vehicle for Beijing to develop its "soft power". The term "soft power" was popularised by American scholar Joseph Nye, and previously described in News Weekly
(February 7, 2009). While traditionally, international relations have been seen in terms of military hardware and trade, Nye argued that "soft power", the cultural, linguistic and moral power of a nation, is important in an era of relative peace.
There is nothing really new about the idea of the Confucius Institute - Britain has the British Council, France has the Alliance Française and Germany has the Goethe Institute. During the Cold War, Washington funded the United States Information Service (USIS) quite generously, but this US soft power effort has been an easy target for Congressional budget-cutters.
Seen in this light, it is not surprising the Confucius Institute has caused controversy, though little about this has appeared in the Australian media. In many quarters, including among expatriate Chinese, the Confucius Institute is criticised for using its semi-official position and privileged status via association with Australia's top universities to propagandise for Beijing.
Professor Jocelyn Chey of the University of Sydney, a former Australian diplomat who was consul-general in Kong Kong from 1992 to 1995, warned in an address to the Sydney Institute in 2007 that there were hazards from the close association of the university with the Confucius Institute.
The other Chinese state, the Republic of China on Taiwan, has long donated textbooks and other educational materials for those around the world learning Chinese, as part of its cultural diplomacy. Though interrupted by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of former president Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan has resumed its outreach efforts under the Kuomintang (KMT) Government of President Ma Ying-jeou.
The Confucius Institute has also indulged in the practice of plagiarism, a practice so widespread in China that most people are not even aware that intellectual property theft is a crime.