08/31/2020, 10.04
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Confucius Institutes and East-West dialogue

by Bernardo Cervellera

Founded in 2004 to spread Chinese language and culture, the Confucius Institutes are suspected of industrial espionage, of influencing the politics of host countries and of lobbying for silence on burning issues: Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, Uyghurs, issues of religious freedom. The silence of Institutes in Italy over demonstrations in Hong Kong and on police repressions. The ban on Western books and culture in Chinese universities. The Sino-Vatican agreement should ask that pontifical universities open "Catholic" spaces in Chinese universities.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Some Chinese dissidents abroad have asked the University of Western Australia (UniWA) in Perth to allow them to talk about their personal experience of the Tiananmen massacre, which they witnessed in 1989, when the army Chinese overwhelmed students and workers with tanks and rifles, killing between 200 and 2 thousand people.

According to the SCMP (08/25/2020), days earlier, speaking with Australian ABC television, the director of the Confucius Institute at UniWA, Jiang Ying, had said that she would be happy to host some dissidents for a discussion to address such a sensitive problem, which is shrouded in silentìce in China and which many young Chinese are not aware of. The dissidents' proposal is an attempt to force Dr. Jiang Ying to move from nice words on TV to facts. According to newspaper reports, after that proposal, the doctor could not even be reached on the phone.

This episode has sparked a new round of questions about the Confucius Institutes. Born in 2004 under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Office, they have the task of spreading the Chinese language and culture abroad. Given the importance of China on the global stage, and having enormous financial means, these institutions have sprouted up all over the world: at present there are over 500 institutions, of which 12 in Italy. They manage to spread a positive and attractive image of China by publicising economic successes, modern achievements, etc. But there are some issues that are not mentioned at all: Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, Uyghurs, issues of religious freedom.

I had the opportunity to speak with some young people who have graduated from these institutes, who have even completed internships in China. They were unable to provide any reflection on what problems contemporary China is experiencing: "Everything is beautiful, everything is solid ... maybe there are some contradictions, but I don't know which one".

The professor of a Confucius Institute in Northern Italy is famous because when it comes to religious persecution of Catholics (imprisoned bishops, killed priests, faithful in prison, ...), she summarizes these dramatic experiences in a diminutive word: "difficulty".

The Confucius Institutes have long been suspected of fostering not only a benevolent and uncritical view of China, but also of influencing the host nation's policy to favor China, and of practicing industrial espionage. Last November, the British Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, presented a report in which it highlights that through the Confucius Institutes, China is infiltrating the universities of the United Kingdom, to the point of threatening "academic freedom". In Italy, people have been shocked by the fact that the institutes and the professors connected to them have been silent in the face of demonstrations by the people of Hong Kong and police violence.

Of course, the Confucius Institutes have also been dragged into the standoff between China and the United States, for which the United States has defined them as a "foreign mission", a kind of detached department of the Beijing Foreign Ministry.

Yet beyond taking sides, it would be important to use the Confucius institutes and universities as a true cultural bridge between East and West, without imbedded ideological closures. For example, it would be an important sign of reciprocity if Chinese universities hosted offices of foreign universities which would have the possibility to have relations and interviews with Chinese students. Some US universities have opened "American corners", but apparently, the authorities "make it impossible for Chinese students to talk to Americans".

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