Essays, Reviews

Are the Confucius Institutes a Trojan Horse?6 min read

A documentary and an academic roundtable renew the debate – Frank Beyer

The amount of recent news in New Zealand and Australia about China’s influence in the region has been overwhelming. One of the threads, downunder and elsewhere, has been the Confucius Institutes – specifically, whether they are a Trojan Horse for Chinese state influence abroad. A dramatic and accessible entry into this debate is Doris Liu’s film In The Name of Confucius (2017), an exposé on the controversial presence of these Chinese language and culture centres that partner with universities all over the world – based on campus but funded by the Chinese state through the “Office of Chinese Language Council International” known as Hanban, affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Liu, a Chinese Canadian, was in Australasia in 2018 to screen her film and hold Q&A sessions. Some of the sessions went ahead – others were cancelled. The director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand, even went to one screening, a move that should be applauded as willingness to engage in the debate.

The movie narrates the cancelling of two Confucius Institute (CI) agreements in Canada. The first case involves Sonia Zhao, who worked as a Mandarin Language Assistant at the Confucius Institute at McMaster University, Ontario. The contract for CI employees states they cannot be followers of the spiritual movement Falun Gong – Sonia was, but kept it secret. Falun Gong is illegal in China, but in Canada it’s illegal to discriminate against employees due to their religious beliefs. Throughout her time at the CI Sonia was afraid she would be exposed as an adherent of Falun Gong and be punished.

In a dramatised scene where Sonia flees her CI accommodation and is picked up by Falun Gong members, Sonia is played by Anastasia Lin, the Miss World contestant who was denied entry to the competition finals in China, likely due to her own belief in Falun Gong and for being outspoken on China’s human rights record. Sonia Zhao was given asylum in Canada and McMaster cancelled its Confucius Institute program. Tellingly, Sonia says that the CI teachers were told to avoid political discussion, but if a student persisted they had to tow the party line – for instance, that Taiwan was part of China and that Tibet had been peacefully liberated.

The influence of Confucius Institutes in Australasian society recalls the myth of the Trojan Horse.”

One has to admire Falun Gong’s untiring resistance to the Chinese Communist Party. No other Chinese opposition group (if they can be described as such) has such a high profile, and their members within China have suffered horribly at the hands of the authorities. However, Falun Gong believes itself as the way to redemption and is very active in proselytizing; like the Communist Party, they want to recruit you. I was disappointed that the movie did not initially focus more on other issues relevant to the Confucius Institutes, such as political indoctrination and academic freedom.

This was somewhat ameliorated by the second case study in the film, which played out in 2014. Here, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), under the direction of Chris Bolton, signed a deal with Hanban to have Confucius Institute courses taught in Canadian schools. A lot of money was on offer from the Chinese side. In the film there is footage of primary-school aged students in Confucius classrooms (where Mandarin Language Assistants from CIs teach in local schools) singing communist songs. One Chinese immigrant parent complains that they are teaching her son positive things about Mao that are in the school textbooks. Chris Bolton doesn’t want to hear about it and ultimately resigns, leaving the TDSB to vote whether to cancel the Confucius deal, while protestors for and against gather outside their headquarters (it is made clear that protestors for the Confucius Institutes were organised and paid by the Communist Party). The TDSB votes to cancel the deal, and the message of the movie is clear – Confucius Institutes are bad news.

Liu’s documentary serves as a useful introduction to the CI controversy, but for a more in-depth look at the topic, the video of a roundtable discussion at Sydney University in November 2018 is also recommended viewing. Here, a group of China experts discussed the agenda and impact of CIs in Australia, chaired by the jovial Feng Chongyi, Professor of China Studies at the University of Technology in Sydney, and a critic of Chinese government influence in Australia; he was recently detained and interrogated by police on a trip to Guangzhou in 2017. In his opening statement he broke the news that, after review, all Confucius classrooms in New South Wales had been indefinitely suspended. There were five speakers at the table – Feng said that they had tried hard to get a Confucius Institute director to participate, but had failed.

Zhao Yan, from the University of Southern Queensland, outlined the dangers of the CIs, while explaining that criticizing the Chinese government is not inherently anti-China. There are over 500 CIs in the world, Zhao said, and 1000 Confucius classrooms. She also quoted top Chinese officials, who openly stated that the CIs were a front for China extending its soft power. Some observers may call this hiding a knife behind a smile (笑里藏刀 xiao li cang dao), one of the tactics from Sun-Tzu’s ‘The Thirty-six Stratagems’ for politics and war: charming your enemy to gain their trust and then moving against them secretly.

John Garnaut, known for his work on the Bo Xilai case, called for liberal democratic systems to be shored up to meet threats from outside influences. He said that the era of blindness towards China’s influence was over, and explained a range of new legislation which, amongst other things, would lead to greater transparency from foreign-funded entities engaged in political activities, including – some would argue – the Confucius Institutes. Garnaut said there is enough evidence to make one at least question whether CIs are wholly benign entities, and that universities and governments need to take decisions on how they will deal with them.

Hercules rerouting a river to clean out the Augean stables. (Wikicommons)

Meanwhile John Fitzgerald, Emeritus Professor at Swinburne University of Technology, spoke about the possible threats to academic freedom that CIs pose, using the metaphor of Hercules and the Augean stables. Cleaning these stables was the sixth task of Hercules: they were piled so high with excrement that it was thought impossible to clean them, but Hercules diverted two rivers into the stables and succeeded in clearing the muck. Professor Fitzgerald suggested that the relationship between China and Australia was deep, and it may only be necessary to clean out a stable or two of excrement in order to repair it. The use of Greek myth seemed telling, given that the other descriptions of the influence of Confucius Institutes in Australasian society recall that other Greek myth, the Trojan Horse.

How should the Trojans have dealt with the Wooden Horse, though? Of course, they should have heeded Cassandra, who told them it was a trap. Beyond that, things aren’t so simple. They could have burnt the horse, roasting to death Odysseus and the Greek soldiers inside. But this may have enraged the Greek leader Agamemnon and his troops, leading them to attack Troy in vengeance. A better tactic would have been to surround the horse with an armed guard, not allowing the soldiers inside a chance to sneak out. ∎

Header image: Confucius Institute building on the Troy University campus, Troy, Alabama. (Kreeder 13 on Wikicommons)