Chinese Doubt Their Own Soft Power Venture

They Think Confucius Institutes Are a Waste of Money

On September 27, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong read aloud a letter written by President Xi Jinping at a ceremony in Beijing celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Confucius Institute (CI) program, an international chain of academic centers embedded in partner schools abroad, yet funded and operated by the Chinese government. The letter was celebratory, lauding the CIs “unremitting efforts for world peace and international cooperation.” The effort is certainly there: the reach of CIs, which teach Chinese language and culture, has grown immensely. In the program’s ten years of existence, the Hanban, a Chinese government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Education and responsible for managing the program, has established 457 CIs and 707 Confucius Classrooms (a related program designed for primary and secondary schools) around the globe. By the end of 2013, CIs had attracted 850,000 registered students since China first established a CI in Korea in 2004. But despite eye-catching numbers, the CIs have been anything but an unqualified success. Not only have American partners begun fighting back against what they view as threats to academic freedom, but many Chinese view the soft-power initiative as a waste of money.

In the United States, pushback against CIs has recently intensified amid concerns they might threaten academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and promote the political aims of China’s ruling Communist Party. On September 25, the University of Chicago announced its refusal to renew its five-year contract with its CI, making it the first major U.S. research institution to cut ties with the program. Just days later, on October 1, as China was celebrating its National Day, Pennsylvania State University followed suit, announcing it would close its on-campus CI because of an apparent disagreement over Chinese government controls.



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Americans may be surprised to learn that Chinese commenters are likewise skeptical toward CIs, which they view as bestowing lavish foreign aid on already privileged Western students—even as many back home continue to lack the basics. Netease, a popular Chinese news portal, collected data from the Hanban in 2012, showing that the Hanban provides up to $100,000 in initial start-up funding for each CI, with maintenance fees shared between the Hanban and the host institution. CIs not only offer courses on language, culture, and Chinese martial arts, but also provide subsidies for faculty to travel to China. The Hanban also provides $60,000 for each Confucius Classroom.

The high costs haven’t deterred the Chinese government; on average, one CI is set up somewhere in the world every six days. In 2013 alone, China’s government poured over $278 million into the CI program, more than four times what the Ministry of Finance allocated for the program in 2006 when the Hanban published its first annual report and released data on the cost of the program. But these eye-popping figures have angered Chinese who believe that all that money would have been better spent domestically. Cai Shenkun, a columnist and prolific blogger, criticized the initiative in a widely read May 2012 post on his blog. “It took Project Hope 20 years to raise $816 million,” Cai wrote, referring to a Chinese public service project that aims to bring schools into poor rural areas and help children from poor families to finish elementary school. “Our government, however, is sending far more than that to establish schools abroad. What a shame.”



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Others have taken to social media to criticize the program’s high outlays. “Hundreds of thousands of Chinese children still can’t afford to go to school. In remote areas, there is no classroom for schools or textbooks for students,” wrote one commentator on Weibo, China’s Twitter, on October 4. But, he added, CIs “provide funding for rich American students. Why doesn’t the government invest in our own young people?”

Those complaints are not without merit. High school attendance is just 40 percent in China’s rural areas, with the dropout rate among middle schools running as high as 25 percent. In recent years, the educational gap between rural and urban Chinese has also grown wider. Over the ten-year period from 2000 to 2010, the number of elementary schools in rural areas dropped by over one half, with an average of 63 elementary schools shuttering every day. While 84 percent of high school graduates in Shanghai go to college, only three percent of China’s rural poor do. In 2010 the annual education expenditure per middle school student in Beijing totaled $3,261, more than six times the $522 spent per pupil in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou, according to Bloomberg. The struggle with poverty, accompanied by the high opportunity cost of simply going to class instead of getting a job in a city, has driven at least 20 million rural youth to drop out of school, according to one study.

The fact that China’s public expenditure on education reached four percent of its GDP just two years ago—12 years after the original deadline—has bothered many Chinese. A rising taxpayer consciousness among Chinese citizens hasn’t helped the CI program’s internal image. “Not only do CIs charge no tuition fees, they even provides subsidies. Where does the money come from? Are they paid by Chinese taxpayers? China’s 1.3 billion taxpayers need an explanation,” demanded one Weibo user on October 4, who identified himself as a lawyer in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

Then there’s the program’s lack of transparency, which has led to accusations of corruption. In January 2010, a company called Wuzhou Hanfeng Web Technology Ltd. won the bid to build and maintain the official website of the online CI program. As reported that month by a swath of mainstream media outlets such as China Daily, Beijing News, and Sina, Chinese online muckrakers subsequently alleged that Wuzhou Hanfeng belongs to Wang Yongli and Hu Zhiping, who are both directors at Hanban. (The bid amounted to over $5 million.)

But Xi’s letter, written to mark the newly-dubbed “Confucius Institute Day” on September 27, reflected none of these criticisms. Instead, he remarked that CIs “belong to China and the world” and called for “joint efforts to promote civilization among mankind, enhance people’s heart-to-heart communication and create a brighter future for mankind together.” China’s government has previously set the goal of establishing 500 CIs by 2015, with 1.5 million registered students. But with continuing resistance both at home and abroad, that ambition may be a cultural bridge too far.