Campus tolerance vital for Confucius institutes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 4:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 10:39am

China has a rich and remarkable culture, millennia old and so diverse and substantive that it can easily perplex outsiders. Understanding the nation and its people cannot be done simply by learning the Chinese language; there has to also be cultural insight. The Confucius institutes, which recently celebrated a decade of existence, offer that opportunity to the world through their programmes. Such "soft power" will be lost, though, unless there is transparency and respect for local academic standards and traditions.

The institutes, operated by Hanban, an organisation close to the Ministry of Education, have expanded rapidly and there are now 1,086 programmes in universities and schools in 123 countries. Their aim is to promote Chinese language and culture and facilitate the training of language teachers, cultural and academic exchanges, and research of China's education, arts and society. That amounts to, as President Xi Jinping said in marking the inaugural Confucius Institute Day on September 27, "a symbol of China's unremitting efforts for world peace and international cooperation [that] links the Chinese people and people of other countries".

But those linkages are being strained by spreading scepticism among some academics and teachers in North America of the motives behind the state-sponsored institutes. In Canada, the Toronto District School Board on October 1 severed ties, following on the heels of McMaster University and the University of Sherbrooke. The University of Chicago last month suspended negotiations on renewing a second five-year term. Of particular concern was the requirement that the facilities be located on campus and use mainland teachers, demands not made by the counterparts British Council, Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut. This, the detractors contend, creates a potential environment for biased teaching and interference in the affairs of schools and colleges.

People the world over are eager to know more about China. The desire to learn Putonghua is growing in tandem with the nation's stature. Chinese language and culture are inseparable and the expertise and resources offered by the institutes are welcome. In doing their work, though, there has to be tolerance of diverse viewpoints.

Academic freedom is cherished in many societies and it has to be respected. Upholding these standards will erase concerns, helping the global spread of Confucian teachings and values.