(This piece is a long guest blog by Marshall Sahlins. In an article titled “China U” published late last year in The Nation, Sahlins took issue with Chinese government’s global educational/political enterprise called “Confucius Institutes” (CI). These institutes teach Chinese language and culture which, together with cultural performances, films, celebrations of Chinese festivals, and the like, portrays China as generous, beautiful, and harmonious. Since the CI program was launched in 2004, some 400 such institutes have been founded in colleges and universities world wide—the US presently has 97—and nearly 600 “Confucius Classrooms” in secondary and primary schools. Sahlins argued that CIs exist “as a virtually autonomous unit within the regular curriculum of the host school”. Indeed, according to the standard agreement signed with host schools, the Confucius Institute Head Office (commonly known as “Hanban”) provides the teachers and textbooks for these courses.
In his article, Sahlins argued that CIs function in a way that is antithetical to academic values because they are intended to spread the political influence of the PRC. CIs, he argued, differ from other cultural institutes — such as the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française — because they are located on university premises and are completely governed by state officials. By giving a foreign government charge of instruction, he claimed, universities promote censorship and self-censorship that are too much like the government prohibitions on discussion of politically-charged topics in Chinese universities.