Hard times for China's soft power

China's attempt to spread its soft power far and wide is sparking a backlash against Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes around the globe.

Hundreds of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes celebrated the 10th anniversary of the founding of the first institute over the weekend. Many in Beijing see it as a major achievement of China’s effort to project its soft power abroad at a time when the world is getting nervous about its rise.

However, it got a nasty present from a leading American university just two days before its big birthday bash. The University of Chicago, where President Barack Obama taught as a law professor as well as being the home of free market economics, decided to suspend negotiations on renewing its relationship with the Confucius Institute.

The university decided to sever the relationship after director-general Xu Lin, who holds the rank of a vice-minister, told the Jiefang Daily that she would not hesitate to end the relationship if it was the wish of the university. It was seen as a rebuke to the university after more than 1000 members of the faculty complained that the institute was undermining academic integrity.

One of the leading opponents to the presence of the Beijing-funded Confucius Institute is Marshall Sahlins, an 83-year old retired anthropologist who passionately argues his case in an article that appeared in The Nation.

“CIs [Confucius Institutes] are managed by a foreign government, and accordingly are responsive to its politics. The constitution and bylaws of CIs, together with the agreements established with the host universities, place their academic activities under the supervision of the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese language Council International, commonly known as Hanban,” he wrote.

“Simply put, Hanban is an instrument of the party state operating as an international pedagogical organisation.”

China opened its first Confucius Institute in 2004 in Seoul and it has since opened more than 400 Confucius Institutes around the world, including a dozen established in Australia and more than 600 Confucius classrooms affiliated with schools. Beijing plans to open another 60 institutes and 350 classrooms by the end of 2015.

China’s top propaganda official, Liu Yunshan, who is a member of the standing committee of the politburo, the inner sanctum of political power in China, says Confucius Institutes are “spiritual high speed rail” connecting Chinese dreams and the rest of the world, according to a speech he gave at University College Dublin in Ireland.

However, there has been a recent backlash against the spread of Confucius Institutes both abroad and in Australia.  The decision by the University of Chicago to sever the relationship is simply one of many examples.  In 2013, the University of McMaster in Canada terminated its relationship with Hanban after an institute instructor filed a complaint of discriminatory hiring against the university with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The instructor was forced to conceal her affiliation with Falun Gong, which is outlawed in China and its followers persecuted.  University of Manitoba also turned down an offer to establish a Confucius Institute, citing potential impact on academic freedom.

The feisty head of Hanban, Xu Lin, was involved in another highly damaging scandal back in July at a European Sinology conference in Portugal where she was a keynote speaker. She ordered copies of academic conference materials containing information about a Taiwanese research organisation to be seized and the offending pages removed (China fails the soft power test, 6 August 2014).

Her scandalous and unceremonious act enraged European academics and the president of European Association for Chinese Studies Roger Greatrex issued a strongly worded statement condemning her flagrant interference in academic freedom.

The Portugal scandal and the fiasco at the University of Chicago highlight Beijing’s ill-conceived push to project its soft power. 

Gary Rawnsley, a noted British academic on public diplomacy and international communication expert said “Xu Lin could not have picked a worse time to assert her imaginary authority. Academic institutions will now have reason to be more suspicious of Confucius Institutes, while those who have long suspected their political agenda will have far more credibility.”

Xu’s hardline behaviour highlights one of the biggest problems for Beijing’s charm offensive. It still relies on officials like Xu, who still think and act like party ideologues who like to assert their authority and bully people into submission.

They fail to understand that the essence of soft power is all in the mind -- unlike hard power, which is all about tangible assets such as raw economic power and military hardware. If Beijing wants to be liked and trusted internationally, it has to change its behaviour and handle basic issues like academic freedom with greater tact and sensitivity.

Their first step should be to remove Xu Lin, who has been a publicity disaster.