There are growing concerns that China is actively using academic and cultural institutions as tools of its foreign policy, often to the detriment of local institutions.

This is the thirty third part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.


As a rising power, China is increasingly aware of how its behaviour and actions are perceived on the global stage. While it is clear that perception of China's rise generates considerable apprehension, if not outright distrust, there is also a discernible trend whereby China is seen to be investing in its public diplomacy outreach with an aim of projecting an image of a responsible global player. Public diplomacy is broadly aimed at creating a constituency favourable for advancing a country's national interest in a foreign country. It is a tool consciously used by states through various means to directly engage with the public and mould general opinion favourable for its national interest. One of the avenues, which China seems to be using for this purpose, is academia. However, the way China has sought to use its increasing academic heft in pursuit of these goals is now inviting a lot of scrutiny and criticism.

There are growing concerns that China is actively using academic and cultural institutions as tools of its foreign policy, often to the detriment of local institutions. There are also reports of espionage as happened in a recent case when a 'pro-Beijing' professor was expelled from Singapore for being an 'agent' of a foreign power. Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs alleged that the professor was engaged in activities, like knowingly interacting with intelligence agencies of foreign country to influence Singapore government’s policy and public opinion that were inimical to the Singapore’s interest. This unprecedented move by Singapore of expelling an academician for alleged espionage has brought to the fore the role of academia as a tool for furthering China's state objectives.

The most notable and arguably the most controversial of institutions in this regard are the Confucius Institutes (CI), which, according to Li Changchun, who was a Politburo member and head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, are "an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up." Confucius Institutes are teaching and research centres located at colleges and universities across the globe aim to 'promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally and facilitate cultural exchanges.' First set up in 2004, the count of these institutes has risen dramatically by 2017 to around 500 with a total of 1.9 million people studying Chinese language and culture in these institutes and around 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 134 countries. These institutes are largely funded by an agency of the Chinese government's Ministry of Education — the Office of Chinese Languages Council International also known as Hanban. These CIs became popular because of their generous funding, free course materials and even trained teachers and instructors provided by the Chinese government to expand the teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture.

The most notable and arguably the most controversial of institutions in this regard is the Confucius Institutes (CI), which, according to Li Changchun, who was a Politburo member and head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, are "an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up."

However, these institutes have come under stringent criticism for their effect on host academic institutions as well as for compromising academic values such as freedom of opinion and stifling an environment for critical thinking. These institutes tend to project a particular image of China, which is devoid of its recent political history. The references to Tiananmen Square, for instance, are deliberately eschewed as a matter of policy and even discussions of issues like human rights within China are consciously discouraged. In 2009, the North Carolina State University even disinvited the Dalai Lama after the school's CI complained. This has sparked a debate within academic circles regarding the true nature of these institutes. Some studies conducted to examine the nature of these 'cultural centres' have raised major concerns regarding the transparency of these institutes and adverse effects this is having on intellectual freedom. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has called these institutes as "an arm of the Chinese state" and that they "advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate." The nature, role and the divide between the stated and perceived objectives of CIs is contested now to an extent that major universities, like the University of Chicago for instance, have closed the institutes on their campuses.

The academia is being used by China as an instrument of 'state interest' and the political elite is not shy mentioning it.

The academia is being used by China as an instrument of 'state interest' and the political elite is not shy mentioning it. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently called for allegiance to the ruling Communist Party from the country's colleges and universities. What should concern the rest of the world is the fact that these efforts are moving beyond Chinese borders and are affecting the functioning of academic institutions in other states. Recently, Cambridge University Press (CUP) decided to block online access in China to certain articles on subjects including the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Cultural Revolution and President Xi Jinping in the highly respected journal, The China Quarterly, at the request of Beijing. Though this decision was reversed after academics worldwide registered their complaints, the fact that the CUP gave in to such demands speaks volumes about the growing influence of Beijing even in matters related to academia.

Moreover, a section of the academia seen to be acting as an 'asset' of the Chinese state in a foreign country to influence decisions favourable to Chinese interests was underscored by the Singapore professor's case. Liberal democratic spaces, like university campuses, are therefore becoming increasingly vulnerable to such tactics and the perceived assault on academic institutions continues to raise serious concerns.

Any effort at public diplomacy is essentially a political activity aimed at attaining a desired set of objectives and states pursue it in different ways. China's use of academia when seen from this perspective is not entirely novel. What is evident is that China has evolved its own means of effectively using academic institutions for furthering its political agenda and it has developed this model with discernible 'Chinese characteristics'. It involves tacit coercion, invalidation of contrarian opinion and censuring narratives perceived by political elites in China as detrimental to their interest. For the rest of the world, it is important to view this Chinese tactic for what it really is, in order to craft an effective response. Academic freedom and integrity are too important to be left unchallenged from the onslaught of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).


Akshay Ranade is a research intern at ORF New Delhi.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Comments

2 Comments on "Academia: A new frontier in China’s foreign policy"

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Oceanbeast
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As far as I have, each institute have its own set of curriculum, that strictly adhere to certain rules; irrespective of branch and stream. How come, these CIs are being allowed to influence the institutes (which, should be other way round). Are there teachings and curriculum, not being supervised by institutions, in rival countries, such as America?

Abhishek Mathur
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Is the GoI /MEA /any one amongst the Indian think tanks involved in developing an academic counter-current to the Chinese propaganda? If not they might be left far behind. I believe we do not have a dearth of reasonable and articulate academics. It is the lack of government patronage that keeps them off the international radar.

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