Essays, Reviews

Are the Confucius Institutes a Trojan Horse?

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.


Blood and Soil

The Chinese minority targeted in Indonesia, historically and today – Frank Beyer

The Palace Museum in Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java, is a mixed bag. The gated entrance to the Sultan’s royal palace complex, the Kraton, opens onto a large grass-covered square – a relief from hot, traffic-choked streets. Within, the museum is not very well maintained but has several interesting exhibitions, one being portraits of all the Sultans of Yogyakarta since 1755. The date of birth, length of reign and number of children of each ruler are given – one managed eighty-two offspring. Today’s Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, gave up the tradition of having concubines and has only one wife and five children.

In contrast to the rundown Palace Museum, a nearby Chinese temple, the Vihara Buddha Prabha, looks like it just received a fresh paint job. The entrance is bright in its yellows, reds and blues – more ostentatious even than similar temples in Taiwan. Inside, there are altars featuring an array of different buddhas and deities (the cast of the Chinese heavens is hard to remember). Adding to the impressive interior are scenes from the Chinese classics painted on the walls.


Sartorial Sycophancy

What Venezuelan President Maduro wore in China – Frank Beyer

As Venezuela has been the recipient of over half of China’s loans to South America, the ongoing crisis there is of concern to Beijing. China continues to support the embattled government of Nicolás Maduro and, like Russia and Turkey, doesn’t recognize the opposition’s Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January 2019. Given that Venezuela is a major source of oil for China, the Communist Party would prefer stability and a continuation of the status quo. If the socialist revolución bolivariana started by Hugo Chávez and continued by Maduro does fall, however, the pragmatic Xi will be ready to negotiate with a new government. Guaidó, for his part, has said he wants a productive relationship with China. In light of the developing crisis, a look at Maduro’s wardrobe and actions on a trip to Beijing in 2018 gives us some insight into the relationship between the two regimes.


The Pixiu Triad

Mafia extortion of Chinese supermarkets in Argentina – Frank Beyer

In Argentina, a Chinese supermarket – supermercado chino, súper chino, argenchino or even just un chino – is not a store catering to Asian expats. The target market of these shops is the general population. In addition to several aisles of food and alcohol, there is usually a counter to buy meat, cheese and cold-cuts, and a fruit and vegetable stand. An Argentinian might be behind the meat counter, a Bolivian weighing the vegetables and a Chinese attending the till.

On September 18, 2016, on Bacacay Street in the Floresta neighborhood of the Argentinian capital city of Buenos Aires, two men on a motorbike pulled up in front of a small Chinese supermarket. One of them fired two shots through the entrance. In the aftermath there was a lot to clean up, but nobody was hurt.



The Dictator’s Smile

Jiang Zemin’s intriguing appearance on American TV – Frank Beyer

On June 4th 1989, the day before he took the famous ‘Tank Man’ photo, American photographer Jeff Widener was in Tiananmen square. Soldiers were arriving to break up the pro-democracy protests that had been ongoing since April. Widener saw an armoured car hurtle into some steel barriers erected by the protesters and crash. He imagined himself getting the Pulitzer prize if he could take a photo of what happened next. He walked towards the chaos, but a brick smashed his camera and ripped his forehead open. A soldier appeared from out of the prone vehicle with his hands raised, surrendering, but protesters descended on him with bricks and pipes. Standing there with blood dripping into his eyes, Widener woke up to the fact that the mob could be about to beat the soldier to death, and balked at taking a photo. He got the hell out of there.

The next day, Jeff was on the roof of the Beijing Hotel when a line of tanks moved towards Tiananmen square below. He had to get a photo of this and it was a near thing – he was almost out of film. He felt like a NBA star with one shot to win the game: make it and you’re a hero, miss it and you’ll regret it forever. Then it happened. A man, a lone protester, walked in front of the line of tanks, and Jeff took the photo which would become famous.