With a long memory of Western exploitation and humiliation dating back to the 19th century, China has been driven for decades to upgrade its self-image and its image in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Recently, however, Chinese leaders have been disappointed that China’s international standing hasn’t risen in proportion to its ever-increasing economic and military power. “They have a deep yearning for respect,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York and co-author of the new book “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century.”
So what are the Chinese doing to enhance their world standing? One strategy is to invest tens of millions of dollars in universities worldwide, in the form of “Confucius Institutes,” including one at UC Davis, that had a grand opening ceremony last month. These institutes, which feature programs on Chinese language, arts and culture, are part of the Chinese government’s “going out” strategy to improve its image in the world, Schell and other China watchers say.
Schell, former dean at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, said China’s leaders have tremendous regard for U.S. universities, “like Gucci luggage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Morgan Stanley, and they want to cozy up to impressive brand-name institutions.” The Confucius Institutes provide a foothold to project a more benign image of contemporary China.
But what are the trade-offs for universities that agree to host Confucius Institutes? Will they serve the needed purpose of broadening U.S. understanding of China and its remarkable history and culture? Or will they make it harder for universities to host discussions of issues that China considers to be sensitive, such as the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square?
Mao versus Confucius
Schell points out that the embrace of Confucius is rather ironic, given that the 6th century B.C. sage was roundly attacked during Chairman Mao Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Not coincidentally, the Confucius comeback began not long after the 1989 Chinese government crackdown on democracy protests at Tiananmen Square.
The Confucian rebranding was front and center at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with performers dressed as Confucian scholars reading sayings such as, “All those within the four seas can be considered as brothers.” With 5,000 years of history on display, the Mao era was conspicuously absent.
All this indicates a certain ambivalence about Mao and a desire to find a Chinese value system that can appeal to a growing middle class at home and the outside world.
James Rae, who teaches in the government department at California State University, Sacramento, and currently is in China, told me that the new urban prosperous middle class “finds little relevance in socialist dogma or even the cult of personality that was constructed around Mao Zedong.” Confucius, however, is the “most towering figure of Chinese civilization.”
The Confucian emphasis on social order and stability, Rae said, is popular with party leaders, while his emphasis on good governance and right living is appealing to ordinary people.
Globally, Rae noted, “Confucius is regarded as an ethical sage that represents the continuity of Chinese civilization, whereas Mao is an ideologically controversial figure harkening to Cold War hostilities that finds few acolytes in the modern world.”
How it works
China now has 96 Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities, including UCLA, Stanford University and the California State University campuses in San Diego and San Francisco. The UC Davis Confucius Institute was launched with $150,000 from the Chinese Ministry of Education-run Hanban. The Chinese government pays the salaries and travel expenses of a dean and three scholars from the Chinese partner university, Jiangnan University.
Schell pointed out that U.S. universities do need to be cautious. These institutes are “not done out of the milk of human kindness but to burnish the ‘soft power’ luster of China.”
I asked Bill Lacy, who is the longtime vice provost for UC Davis’ University Outreach and International Programs and heads the university’s Confucius Institute’s steering committee, about this. He said he sees the center as “strengthening a partnership we’ve had in the past” – 25 years of exchanges with Jiangnan University and its food-science program.
He told me that “UC Davis is not naive about this – like a partnership with any corporation or foundation. We expect to operate independently. The academic integrity of our institution is first and foremost. We will monitor this closely.”
A good thing?
The question is whether the Confucius Institute can get beyond safe programming like tea rituals, tastings of Great Wall wines, music and dance, and forging California-China business connections.
As Schell pointed out, “It is undeniable that those who take the money are not going to want to ruffle the feathers of the benefactor. Whether it is business or cultural exchanges, if you want to play in the China game, there are lots of no-fly zones.”
Rae said he believes that even if the Confucius Institutes do not host events on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, “I would expect those universities to continue to host appropriate lectures or events that include differing opinions on sensitive issues. If they don’t offer such opportunities fearing the loss of funding from China, then the public should pressure them to discontinue such a relationship.”
The need for understanding between China and the United States is more important than ever, as the potential for cooperation and conflict – economically, diplomatically and militarily – grows between these two great powers. At a time when U.S. university budgets are squeezed and languages are being cut from K-12 schooling, the Confucius Institutes provide a way to get language programs with native speakers from China, who expand American understanding of China and return to China with firsthand experience of the United States.
If an open society, like France or Japan, were establishing similar institutes, Schell said, “they would be embraced in a second.” And that’s where the Confucius Institutes are likely to falter in their ambition. Rebranding can only go so far. The stumbling block to China’s international respectability remains its one-party rule and repression of dissent. No amount of ceremonial dances or tea tastings on U.S. campuses will change that.