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China: Confucius Institutes get rebrand

The Chinese government has moved management of its overseas Confucius Institutes from the Hanban, a department of the Ministry of Education, to an NGO to lessen the suspicion the centres have attracted over the last few years.

Confucius InstituteConfucius Institutes promote Chinese language and culture abroad but have been accused of interfering with academic freedom. Photo: Pixabay

There are 541 CIs and 1170 Confucius Classrooms in 162 countries.

Control will ostensibly move to an NGO set up by 27 universities and other organisations involved in international education, many of which are themselves under the umbrella of the MoE.

State-run local media the Global Times, which is known for its particularly antagonistic brand of nationalism, quoted analysts as saying the change will “better facilitate Chinese language teaching overseas and disperse the Western misinterpretation that the organisation served as China’s ideological marketing machine”.

“[The change will] better facilitate Chinese language teaching overseas and disperse the Western misinterpretation”

Since launching in 2004 Confucius Institutes have aimed to promote Chinese language and culture abroad much in the same way as other countries’ soft power arms such as Germany’s Goethe Institut.

As of June 2020, there were 541 CIs and 1170 Confucius Classrooms in 162 countries.

However multiple reports in different countries have levelled claims against CIs as also interfering in the affairs of universities by trying to block events and talks related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and other Chinese territorial disputes.

Universities have been reported as cancelling visits by people like the Dalai Lama and Chinese dissidents, and in 2014 CI staff were caught removing references to Taiwan from the program of an education conference in Portugal.

CIs also require all staff to adhere to Chinese law no matter what country they are based in or their nationality.

“Violation of the laws of the host country (region) or China” can result in firing.

Many universities have shut down CIs in recent years around the world.

In the US, there have been calls to ban CIs. The Confucius Act, passed unanimously by the Senate in June, would if made law aim to protect academic freedom, while another bill currently under consideration would prevent CIs from having any input in a university’s China-related course content.

The past few months have seen several changes in China’s promotion of education and language learning.

It recently announced that the HSK exams – proficiency tests taken by Mandarin learners and administered by Confucius Institutes – would be reformed and in June released a plan for the further opening of education that advocated “expand[ing] the global influence of China’s online education” and promoting “Chinese language learning in more foreign countries”.

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