The building used by the Confucius Institute at Stockholm University [Photo/Stockholm University]
Stockholm University's recent announcement that it will close the Confucius Institute on its campus this June has sparked heated public debate.
As a cultural institution teaching Chinese language and culture, the Confucius Institute has set up branches in 127 countries and regions over the past 10 years. It has been working very hard to become a bridge between China and other parts of the world and to serve as a cross-cultural communication platform.
Yet people have never stopped questioning its motives and actions. Their doubts mainly concern two issues: whether the institute hampers academic freedom and whether it is run by the Chinese government.
According to the Constitution and By-laws of the Confucius Institute, foreign universities hosting a Confucius Institute enjoy complete freedom over the branch's opening or closure. If a foreign university has the intent to open a Confucius Institute, it can apply to the institute's headquarters in China. When the application is approved, a committee composed of members from both the headquarters and the host university will be established to run the branch jointly. The everyday operations of the branch, including personnel management and financial management, are overseen by the host university, while the Chinese side is only responsible for helping the university devise a development plan and budget in addition to facilitating teachers' and volunteers' communication with people in China. From this arrangement, we can see that the headquarters has little influence on the individual branches' daily operations and therefore has no say in the host universities' academic activities. Therefore, it's impossible for a Confucius Institute's presence to hamper or even affect the level of academic freedom at the host university.
It's true that the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban) is a public institution under the Chinese Ministry of Education committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide. Perhaps that's why people doubt its background. But in fact, when the Confucius Institute was established, it borrowed from the experience of many Western cultural institutions such as the Alliance Française, the British Council and the Goethe-Institut. Its branches all over the world don't report to the Chinese government or the headquarters, and they are certainly not overseas offices of the Chinese government. They belong to the country where they are located. For example, a Confucius Institute in the United States is an American institution, not a Chinese one. Nonetheless, the Confucius Institute is still surrounded by controversies and needs to reflect on the reasons for this. In the future, it should arouse the interest and keep the enthusiasm of overseas people, universities, social organizations and even governments.
To be frank, the Confucius Institute has many problems with textbooks, course arrangements and teachers' qualifications. For example, some teachers at certain institutes like to spoon-feed students as they are used to doing in China, but that's not how things work in those countries. This makes students lose interest. In regard to textbooks, although the Confucius Institute is working very hard to cover as many topics as possible - including poetry, calligraphy, traditional Chinese medicine and traditional crafts - one can't expect local students to appreciate and understand every aspect of the extensive and complex culture of China. Many current textbooks contain content that are not well-suited to local students. The Confucius Institute also needs to learn from its past experience in operations, branding, expansion and cooperation. The recent setbacks it has suffered have exposed the notable gap between the institute and the more fully developed cross-cultural communication institutions. In the future, the institute should focus on improving its quality. Chinese President Xi Jinping once said that the Confucius Institute belongs to China as well as to the world. As a cross-cultural communication institution, I'm sure it will constantly improve itself and win the recognition of the world.
The writer is also Vice Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
The article was written in Chinese and translated by Chen Xia.
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