The Great Makeover of Confucius Institutes: Re-Branding or Camouflaging?

China’s Confucius Institutes represent a global network of institutes that aims to represent China’s culture worldwide, ensure mutual understanding and cooperation, and offer language courses through partnerships with universities. In a statement published on U.S. Department of State website, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has labelled the Confucius Institute as a “Foreign Mission” of the People’s Republic of China. Pompeo noted that he believes that China has been using the institutes to distribute large scale and well-funded propaganda to “malignly influence operations” in the USA. This statement comes at a time where closures of Confucius Institutes are happening in numerous Western countries.                                         

 China’s Confucius Institute Headquarters, also known as Hanban, issued a statement in July 2020, in which it announced that the global network of Confucius Institutes will be run by a newly-established non-governmental foundation.

This decision can be interpreted from several angles. First, this re-branding may be a result of actions of closures and terminations of contracts with the institutes and second – preparing Chinese language educators and trainers for a new situation in which they ought to actively tackle the emerging Western interpretation of Confucius Institutes as breeding grounds of Chinese state propaganda.                   

Second, these efforts to re-brand Confucius Institutes appear to be a logical reaction of China and its Ministry of Education to ensure that the institutes survive in the West and change perceptions about their role and mission. The depth of this transition is debatable. This shift towards an NGO-type of organization and administration does not ensure complete freedom from China’s Ministry of Educationthat will continue to create standards on teaching and training of the employees of the institutes.

According to the Director-General of Hanban (the Confucius Institute Headquarters) Ma Jianfei,  this re-branding comes as a reaction to USA’s increasing efforts to side-line the proliferation of Confucius Institutes at American universities, therefore this rebranding is used to develop a somewhat more pragmatic and more efficient new model for interaction with the USA and its relevant institutions. 

This raises the question, does this institutional “camouflage” serve anything other than changing perceptions? These recent changes to the Confucius Institutes’ form of organization and re-branding also allowed Confucius Institutes to change their name. This means that many Confucius Institutes across the world may use this newly found opportunity and rebrand by changing their names, making it harder for the policymakers to track their activities as the network would seem more decentralized.

The U.S. Department of Education made a comprehensive research into Hanban’s funding activities and found that around 70% of U.S. education facilities failed to report to the Department of Education the funds they received from Hanban. They were legally obliged to report anything more than, $250,000. The Department of Education found that from January 2012 to June 2018, 15 U.S. schools admitted to receiving more than $15 million from Hanban. The sheer amount of Hanban’s spending on U.S. schools is further exemplified by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Report that analysed financial records from some 100 schools in the USA and found that Hanban has injected more than $113 million. The U.S. Department of Education called out numerous colleges for not reporting around US$3.6 billion and labelled these universities as actively soliciting foreign government corporations and nationals for funds.             

Do the Western Cultural Institutions not do the Same?

Confucius Institutes are now, more than ever, presented as untrustworthy, unreliable, and spreading malignant propaganda. This raises another question, are these perceptions biased and are the Western cultural institutions not acting in the same manner?  The Confucius Institute used the experiences of other relevant cultural institutes like that those of the UK, France, Germany, and Spain to create an institutional blueprint.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the terms of hosting a Confucius Institute are agreed in a contract signed by Hanban and interested universities. These contracts normally contain provisions that indicate that both the U.S. and China’s laws may apply. The contracts with directors of these institutes and lecturers request them to safeguard the national interests of China and ensure that they regularly report to the Chinese embassy upon their arrival to the United States.

While these Western counterparts of the Confucius Institute are connected to their own respective countries’ soft power objectives, they are not perceived as infringing on academic freedoms and censoring unfavourable presentations of their countries, at least not on the same level as Confucius Institutes are claimed to be doing. Cultural organizations of Western countries conduct their soft power activities in a more sophisticated way, which comes as no surprise as they had decades of institutional practice to polish these practices.

Time will tell whether China will have to give these institutes more autonomy to ensure their survival and will it able to achieve the Western level of sophistication in projecting its soft power.

Nemanja Dukic
Nemanja Dukic
Nemanja Dukic is a teaching assistant at the Institute of International Relations at the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. He specializes in small states studies and geopolitics of the Arctic region, more specifically in China's influence on small states in the Arctic region and the impact of its foreign policy and soft power projections on small states. He also works as a research assistant at the Cold War History Research Centre working on creating an exhaustive chronology of post-World War II events.