Wednesday 2 March 2011

The Confucius Institutes: Not spy command centres

It's weird to even have this debate, but it seems we must. In an article redolent of the "den of spies" rhetoric thrown against the US embassy in Tehran under the Shah, Michael Turton, using a report from Fa Lun Gong-founded Epoch Times as his evidence, characterises the Confucius Institutes thus:

"Confucius Institutes have two, and only two, functions: one is propaganda, and the other is intelligence on the academic community. Watch out for the one in your neighborhood; its presence is entirely inimical to the development of robust critical views of China, academic freedom, and democratic politics."

This might have been defensible had the Epoch Times report contained anything solid linking the Confucius institutes to either of these activities. Instead, there is little in the report to support such claims. To support the assertion that Confucius institutes serve to propagate propaganda, the only direct link in the article is the presence of a group of pro-Beijing demonstrators "wearing T-shirts with labels identifying them as being from Montreal's Confucius Institute". Backing up the idea that Confucius institutes facilitate the gathering of intelligence, at most the article mentions a speech in which the head of the Canadian security service lumped the Confucius Institutes in with other instruments of Chinese policy, and a 2007 warning from an academic that Confucius Institutes might restrict freedom of speech at universities (with no follow-up).

The section that opens the article describes a Xinhua report about a Canada-based Confucius Institute instructor engaging in criticism of Canadian reporting from China in 2008. However, this activity seems to have consisted mainly of showing students a map showing Tibet as being inside China (like almost every map in the world) and reads like a CCP propaganda piece that may well be exaggerated or manufactured. At any rate, it shows nothing conclusive about the Confucius Institutes, certainly no evidence of the Confucius Institutes engaging in intelligence gathering or direct propaganda. Michael Turton's European friends may have reported rumours of intelligence gathering, but once again, no solid examples were cited.

Otherwise the sources cited in the Epoch Times article largely agree with the majority view on the Confucius institutes: that they are an exercise in soft power, not direct propaganda, and none of the experts quoted referenced the gathering of intelligence as a purpose of the Confucius Institutes.

[Picture: A Confucius Institute instructor (just kidding). Photo by Alan Light, 1980.]


justrecently said...

I can understand your reservations about the Epoch Times - that said, anyone who reads China Daily, may as well read the Epoch Times for good measure.

As for Confucius Institutes, I dislike the way they become institutions in countries like mine. The role in which Confucius Institutes play a role in learning and teaching of Chinese in our countries should remain limited, because they are, of course, carriers of CCP ideology - no matter if they "spy" or if they don't.

So I share Turton's view that Confucius Institutes shouldn't be viewed as politically neutral - even if for somewhat different reasons - or because I just don't know how to assess the spying allegations. Neither press under CCP supervision, nor the Epoch Times, are great sources of information. They are opposing parties in a propaganda war.

Anonymous said...

Aw FOARP. Recall your rhetorical put down - "China has a soft power Strategy?" - to my response to your Jasmine post below.

Even if it was written by a FG type, fact checkers are used.

I also share this concern.


Wukailong said...

On the blogs I've been reading lately, administrators seem to love deleting comments for the express purpose of removing "trolls." Good thing this blog doesn't...

Gilman Grundy said...

@KT - I guess China does have a soft-power strategy, it's just that its hard-power strategies drive a 4-horsed coach right through the middle of it and make it look hopelessly inept.

@JR - I think we can live with projects like this - they are comparable to the development projects which many countries in the developed world fund in the third world. Politically neutral? No. Propaganda/espionage? Also no.

As for Epoch Times, well, it keeps pushing stories which anyone who knows anything about China knows to be untrue - like the supposed millions of CCP members who have "quit". I cannot take it seriously, and sensible reportage cannot rely on its reports alone - there at least needs to be some confirmation from another source.

@Wukailong - Yeah, Michael Turton has a low threshold for criticism. His blog, his rules - but nothing I wrote in my comments that got scrubbed were any more extreme that what I've written here. The only thing I didn't write here that I did write in my comments was that his previous commentary describing Mainlanders as "perps" showed him to be unsympathetic to Mainlanders, and made it look as if he was blaming them for the policies of their government.

justrecently said...

Let me give you an example, FOARP: there is quite a preparedness in universities to let "Confucius Institutes" do quite a share of the language training. It saves our public money, after all. The institutes aren't to blame.

But the absence of a debate about how far the CCP's stake in our educational systems should go - and if it should have a stake there at all -, is remarkable. Imagine the Soviet Union running similar institutions in Britain or continental western Europe some decades ago.

In that sense, I'm grateful when people like Mr Turton point this out, even if I agree that he should take better care of his sources.

One more point about Chinese spying. I agree that it is a touchy subject, and that every individual has a right to be judged by personal merits. However, one should bear in mind that a Briton or German can easily say "no" when approached by his country's spying agencies.

If you are Chinese, it may not be that easy. It's not the nature of the individual alone that counts when we are talking about totalitarian political systems, or an absence of the rule of law.

Anonymous said...

Foreign donations to western universities are not restricted to the PRC and its 300 hundred or so Confucius Institutes around the globe. (BBC reports last night that the LSE is returning a Libyan donation.

This is an ethical issue a bit like maintaining a strict divide between church and the state (and its institutions such as schools.)

Try this:

"* The revelation that Chinese study centres, known as Confucius Institutes, hosted at several UK universities have members of the Chinese government sitting on their advisory board.

According to the study, the institutes' curriculum and teaching standard are set in China with their host universities required to accept "operational guidance" from Beijing.

The report argues that the institutes are a "tool for Chinese propaganda" espousing a one-dimensional view of the country, in particular its relationship with Tibet."

Key words being one-dimensional view.

I've scrolled thru the websites of the CIs in tubbyland, and they are all very different, but two key themes do exist.

1. The focus on warm and fuzzy trade relations which really means our mineral deposits, which is not suprising, since the Foreign Investment Review Board is now getting serious about atttempted buyouts by China's SOEs.

2. Study tours for school principals and language teachers...they get the full sight seeing and praise banquet treatment with lots of female tour guides.

Somehow, the critical issues are somehow placed in a parallel universe. (Gee, people in China are really opening up, they work so hard and smile a lot.)

@FOARP. A lot of their soft power exercises esp govt media are abject failures, but these study tour soft power exercises are pretty effective.

As for intelligence gathering, Im quite sure that many of these Institutes have 'talent spotters', bit like Cairncross the and Cambridge Five.

And as JR noted, it is not hard for Chinese nationals overseas to be leaned on. In fact, wiki has a pretty decent entry on this facet of the PRCs intelligence services.


Anonymous said...

FOARP Submitted a long, referenced and non-controversial on-topic post which should have come in as #6. Registered and then disappeared. Maybe it is a cookie problem with the new browser I've installed.


Gilman Grundy said...

@KT - The links meant it got spammed, just unspammed it.

@JR - This would be more relevant if it weren't for the fact that most universities each already host hundreds of PRC students and academics, and also send hundreds of their own academics to the PRC. Allowing a few more in as language instructors hardly increases the risk of espionage. As for propaganda, having been subjected to a bit of it in the PRC, I'm not exactly worried about people being won over by it.

justrecently said...

I disagree, FOARP. Unless there is a debate which clarifies what we are really doing, giving the CCP a stake in our countries' education, we simply do not know what we are doing.

I do agree with King Tubby - I'm not taking the absence of public orientation lightly, and I'm encouraging that kind of debate in my field of work.

But obviously, you have every right to take it lightly yourself. This is an open society.

MPR said...

FYI I wrote the piece on ABC's unleashed. I don't believe any of the comments from FOARP or others identified evidentiary problems in the Epoch Times articles--Turton's conclusion, cited by FOARP, was his own, and not a contention made in the original piece by my colleague. As for the piece in ABC, all of it is attributable to other sources, and the only contribution I made was to try to present things with some panache and question the ethics of the whole enterprise.

For the record, I've seen no evidence that CIs are a nest of spies. I'll say what I have evidence for. I think their primary point is merely to win people over to China-as-presented-by-the-Party. Some people are cool with that. There could be more to it; let's see how things develop.

Anonymous said...

@mpr. I do agree with you that CIs are not nests of spies. Thats very different from my point, that they utilise talent spotters when gullible or corruptable individuals come to their attention. And if you wish to continue this dialogue, I will cite an example in my nation state.

Pls make the distinction and lets not squabble about sources.


Gilman Grundy said...

@MPR - I'm not dubious about ABC's reportage, nor am I necessarily saying that the Epoch Times is wrong - but I certainly do not think of the Epoch Times as a reliable source.

You're right, there could be more to it, but without actual evidence (rather than mere suspicion) I find it hard to say that CI's should not be allowed.

@KT - Sorry about the continued spamming of your comments. I'll try and see if there's anyway of turning off the spam blocker - the word verification should be enough.

MPR said...

@FOARP. Keep reading, your views may change in time. I have been working for them for about 6 months; I expect that everything I write will stand up to careful scrutiny.