University of Ulster: “part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”

It’s a big day for the University of Ulster as it welcomes senior Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Liu Yandong to officially launch its Confucius Institute.

While promoted as independent educational and cultural bodies, the Confucius Institutes have perhaps been more accurately described as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

Who said that? Some external critic of China, no doubt? No, none other than Li Changchun, the propaganda chief of the Chinese Communist Party and the 5th ranked member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

It’s no coincidence then that it’s his Politburo colleague, Madame Liu Yandong, who is in Northern Ireland this week to open the Institute and meet our (democratically elected) politicians. She also happens to be the chairperson of Hanban, the Office of the Chinese Language Council International, which answers to China’s Ministry of Education, and which directs and funds the Confucius Institutes.

Hanban specifies that Chinese language teachers sent to overseas universities like the University of Ulster should be “Aged between 22 to 60, physical and mental healthy, no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations and no criminal record.”

Pretty clear that religious discrimination is part of the Confucius Institute package, then. Is the University of Ulster academic community comfortable about this?

And no chance of someone like Professor Liu Xiaobo getting a job teaching Chinese at the University of Ulster, either. While he may be the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, of course, not only has a criminal record, he is currently serving 11 years in jail for calling for human rights and democratic reforms in the country.  This is an intrinsic part of Madame Liu Yandong and colleagues’ approach to government: lock up your critics.

The first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in 2004. But following President Hu Jintao’s October 2007 speech to the 17th Communist Party congress, in which he said China must “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country”, there was rapid expansion and there are now hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide.

The host universities are reportedly expected to provide premises and a faculty member to serve as administrator. In return the school gets about $100,000 a year from Hanban, teaching materials, and the chance to apply for additional money for specific programs.

A few institutions have resisted the push – and the money.

As the New York Times reports, the University of Pennsylvania’s East Asian Studies faculty unanimously opposed moves to open a Confucius Institute there.  Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the university is quoted: “Universities are desperate for money, and the Chinese have a lot of money”.

For Prof Waldron, the key issue is academic independence. “Once you have a Confucius Institute on campus, you have a second source of opinions and authority that is ultimately answerable to the Chinese Communist Party and which is not subject to scholarly review,” he said. “You can’t blame the Chinese government for wanting to mold discussion.”

Again, from the NYT:

‘Bruce Cumings, a tenured historian at the University of Chicago who signed a petition protesting the Confucius Institute there, said that although he is on the board of the university’s East Asian study center, he heard nothing about the institute “until the day it was opened.” But such a low-profile approach, he said, is only possible while China itself remains calm. The network of institutes “are time bombs awaiting the next Tiananmen,” he said.’

The NYT quotes Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, saying that ‘the comparison, often made by Confucius Institute defenders, between his organization, which promotes British culture, and the Chinese effort, only goes so far. “We are a stand-alone organization operating out of our own premises. They are being embedded in university campuses”.’ Indeed. And also now planning to roll out their Confucius Classrooms programme in Northern Ireland’s primary and secondary schools.

To mark the launch of the Confucius Institute, the University of Ulster today commences a week-long Chinese Culture Week. Don’t expect mention of the three Ts: Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen. Or human rights for that matter.

Indeed, when it comes to China, it looks like our academics may be content to be as tame as our politicians.

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