For many students, Confucius Institutes are places where they can learn about Chinese culture and language. However, critics warn that these programs are a soft power play to gain influence in Beijing-run schools.
In Latin America, the Confucius Institute has been expanding since 2006. They have a presence in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some countries have more than one, most of which are located on university campuses. The institute teaches Mandarin, finances summer camps in China, supports cultural events and offers scholarships to study in the communist-ruled Asian nation.
“I have the potential to go abroad, especially in China, to earn a master’s degree,” said Anthony Trujillo, an international relations student who has been learning Mandarin for two years at the Confucius Institute at the University of San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador.
Since the opening of the Confucius Center on campus in 2010, enrollment in Mandarin classes has grown from 40 to 300 active students.
“We Hispanics look for job offers abroad, and although the difficulty of learning Chinese is quite a challenge, it is worth doing,” said 19-year-old computer science student Daniela Jimenez.
“The Chinese government provides study materials to instructors, and then offers the option of scholarships in China to those who gain proficiency in the language,” explained Jake Gilstrap, author of the academic paper “Confucius Institute of China in Latin America: Tools of meek power.”
“Among them are students, professors and researchers,” he said.
concerns about academic freedom
Gilstrap told VOA that China is seeking to create “a generation of future leaders in Latin America, so that through their close relationships and cultural understanding of China, the world can be seen more similar to China’s worldview. Can clearly support many of China’s foreign policy objectives.”
Parasifal D’Sola, director of the Andres Bello Foundation’s China Latin American Research Center, fears academic freedom. They worry that the increased presence of a Chinese government-funded institution within universities in the region could lead to a decline in the production of material on topics sensitive to China, such as political freedom, censorship or the suppression of the Uyghur population.
“While there is more involvement of Latin American professors in research funded by some Chinese government entities, we will see less criticism within universities, which is something that favors China for its international image,” D’Sola told VOA. Said in an interview. ,
A 2019 Human Rights Watch report on China’s threats to academic freedom outside its borders stated that Chinese government officials “influenced academic discussions, monitored foreign students from China, censored scholarly investigations, etc.” , or otherwise seek to interfere with academic freedom.”
The report also said, “The Confucian Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain themes and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use recruitment practices that take political loyalties into account.”
Gilstrap noted that the difference between Confucian institutions and other language and culture teaching programs, such as the Alliance Française or the British Institute, is that those programs do not operate inside universities.
A spokesman for the US State Department told VOA that the institutions have strong ties with the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, which collects intelligence on people and organizations internal and outside China.
In 2009, four years after the institutions opened, Li Changchun, the then head of ideology of the Communist Party of China, stated that the institutions were “an important part of China’s foreign propaganda setup.”
History of Confucian Institutions
Beijing created the Confucius Institutes in 2004. Since then, the government-funded initiative has expanded to 162 countries, with more than 500 institutions worldwide and over 1,000 classrooms under the umbrella of the Confucian Institutes in each country.
In a joint action plan agreed by China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in December, China committed to opening more Confucius Institutes over the next three years and providing “5,000 government scholarships and 3,000 training places in China”. Is. ,
In response to VOA’s inquiries, the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., said “the Confucius Institute or classes are open and transparent and come in strict compliance with the laws and regulations of the host institutions” with which they have an agreement.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said the Confucian institutions’ “contributions have been widely appreciated by universities, students, and local communities in the United States.”
Professor Norberto Conscani has been the local director of the Confucius Institute at the National University of La Plata in Argentina since its founding in 2009. He is also the director of the Institute of International Relations of the same university.
Conasani does not believe that the association of universities with Confucian institutions affects academic freedom. He said that there is no censored subject in his university programs.
“We have a very critical view of human rights in China,” he said.
But he acknowledged that Chinese teachers in Confucian institutions are more secure in their classroom conversations.
Teachers are “very cautious. … They don’t teach politics or economy. Zero. Only language,” Konasani said.
Confucius Institute and Business
Confucian institutions expanded rapidly to countries with which China established more commercial exchanges. Chile, whose main export destination is China, has two Confucian Institutes and five Confucian Cultural Halls. There are four institutions in Peru. There are 10 Confucian Institutes and three Confucian Cultural Halls in Brazil. China is the main export destination of Brazil and Peru. Brazil exported 22.7% of its total products to China and Peru exported 27.9% in 2020.
Argentina, a country that recently joined China’s new Belt and Road Initiative, has three institutions.
Ecuador, a country that lists China as its second-ranked trading partner, has also seen an increase in student interest in Confucian institutions.
Alexandra Velasco, director of internationalization at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, explains that students’ interest in Mandarin is driven by the possibility of participating in scholarships offered by China and the option of doing business with that country.
“It has a lot to do with imports. People I know who have got scholarships to get their master’s degrees there (China), for example, are interested in looking for a factory that will give them their It helps to have something in mind or, as Velasco said, import the product directly from there or establish a relationship to send the shrimp. … However, they are also interested in the academic part.
The controversy surrounding Confucian institutions continues with some educational institutions and students benefiting, while countries such as the US have warned that gains may come at the cost of academic freedom.