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Documentary Pulls Back The Curtain On Communist China’s Global Soft Power Outposts

China, Confucius Institutes

“I didn’t think that going abroad, a place I thought to be free, that I’d still be restricted.”

Sonia Zhao was a college student in China when she learned she could teach Chinese abroad through centers called Confucius Institutes. She signed up and finished the training, but recoiled when she saw the final contract. It required her to pledge nonparticipation in Falun Gong, a meditative practice banned in China, in part because its massive popularity threatens loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

Zhao had been practicing Falun Gong since childhood and her mother, also a practitioner, was twice jailed for her participation. Since the late 1990s, the Chinese government has imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or killed hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong members.

Afraid authorities would discover her religious practices, Zhao signed the contract and hoped to enjoy more leeway at her assigned Confucius Institute at McMaster University, in Canada. She found that was not the case. A year later, she fled the Confucius Institute and filed for religious asylum in Canada. Embarrassed, McMaster University closed its Confucius Institute.

In the Name of Confucius,” a riveting new documentary by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Doris Liu, examines the Chinese government’s controversial practice of planting Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms at more than 1,100 universities and K-12 schools worldwide. Everyone who cares about freedom of speech, international politics, or China should watch the film. “In the Name of Confucius” premieres today in the United States, on April 26, at an event that also launches a new report on Confucius Institutes, “Outsourced to China,” which I wrote for the National Association of Scholars.

Confucius Institutes Are Centers of Chinese Soft Power

Confucius Institutes are centers of Chinese soft power. Ostensibly they share Chinese language and culture out of Chinese generosity. Realistically, they offer China an opportunity to shape how future scholars and leaders of rival nations think about China. The United States has 103 Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities, and 501 Confucius Classrooms at K-12 schools.

Liu’s film offers glimpses into China’s goals for its Confucius Institutes, which an agency of the Chinese government, the Hanban, operates and funds. She splices together TV shots of Hanban executive director Xu Lin (a member of the Chinese government’s highest committee, the 35-member State Council) expressing her delight that top universities in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere “work for us” by hosting Confucius Institutes.

Later, we see Xu accept the “Influencing the World Award” at a gala. In her acceptance speech, Xu raves that “Confucius Institutes are an important part of our soft power. We want to expand China’s influence.”

Under Xu’s leadership, the Hanban sends upwards of $100,000, free Chinese teachers, and thousands of government-printed textbooks to every Confucius Institute and Confucius Classroom, every year. In exchange, China gets to set hiring policies, buy universities’ goodwill, and screen out undesired topics, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the Dalai Lama’s support for Tibetan independence.

What China Says Versus What China Does

China has repeatedly denied allegations that its Confucius Institutes propagandize. But Liu offers clips of Chinese cartoon characters singing of how “Great Leader Chairman Mao leads us” to victory. We see Cathy Liu, a parent, approaching a Toronto school district member to report her son was taught “the Dalai Lama is a demon” at his local Confucius Classroom.

Another parent, an immigrant from China, comments in one moving interview, “We don’t want our next generation to be brainwashed by Communism as we were.” Meanwhile, outside a Toronto School District board meeting regarding a proposed Confucius Classroom, pro-China protesters chant, “Long live the Chinese Communist Party! Long live China!”

Zhao, the McMaster University teacher, appears throughout the film telling of the speech restrictions she faced, even in Canada. After receiving religious asylum, Zhao has started life over in Ontario. But she knows she can never return to China, where her parents have been warned that punishment may await her.

Liu’s film focuses on controversies in Canada but complements a growing body of evidence that China’s generosity is less than innocent. Three years ago the University of Chicago shut down its Confucius Institute after a faculty petition raised serious concerns about the Chinese government’s intentions. In 2014 the American Association of University Professors recommended universities close Confucius Institutes and rebuff China’s offers. That followed a similar recommendation from the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 2013.

My report, “Outsourced to China,” examined 12 Confucius Institutes in the United States. Like Liu, we found teachers who were trained to avoid topics censored in China, and administrators wary of any transparency. One Chinese director of a Confucius Institute told us she would deflect questions about Tiananmen Square by showing a contemporary picture of the square and “pointing out the beautiful architecture.” Professors unaffiliated with the Confucius Institute reported pressures to support it, or censor themselves, to avoid jeopardizing the university’s funding stream.

Liu’s film opens with a quote from Confucius: “The noble man is aware of fairness, the inferior man is aware of advantage.” China has tried to remake Confucius a proto-Communist in its own image. What it has done in the name of Confucius is a tragedy.