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China's Confucius Institutes may face German restrictions

July 8, 2023

German politicians want to see "clear limits" when it comes to China's influence on universities in Germany. But so far, the call has gone unheeded.

German and Chinese men applauding as the plaque of the Confucius Institute is unveiled during its opening ceremony at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, on Nov. 7, 2017
The Confucius Institute in Hanover is one of 19 that have been set up across GermanyImage: Shan Yuqi/Xinhua/imago images

German Education and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger has again warned that China may be exerting undue influence on German universities via the Confucius Institutes. "Clear limits" must be set for "direct influence," Stark-Watzinger said in an interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt in June.

In the weeks since those comments, her ministry confirmed to DW that this had triggered no Chinese reaction.

Confucius, who lived from 551-479 B.C., is arguably China's most important philosopher. About 20 years ago, Beijing set up the Confucius Institute as an official educational organization and it began to establish such entities worldwide in 2004. According to Chinese official figures, their number has grown to about 500 in more than 90 countries.

Confucius statue in the 'China Town' pedestrian area of Bokeo province in Laos
Confucius is revered as China's most prominent philosopherImage: Julian Küng/DW

The stated mission of the institutes is to promote the Chinese language and culture — a similar goal to organizations from other countries, including Germany's Goethe Institute. At the same time, the Confucius Institutes play a significant role in the helping China to open up, both culturally and politically. Most of the time, but not always, Confucius Institutes are established in partnership with local higher education institutions and universities.

Confucius Institutes face accusations of propaganda

As long as these institutes have existed, there have been allegations they serve as a propaganda tool for the authoritarian leadership in Beijing. In short: China gives money for research or scientific projects and cultural initiatives, thereby gaining influence and control. Critics have warned that academic freedom is at stake.

The Confucius Institutes use university facilities, take on or contribute to Chinese language learning opportunities and organize lectures, cultural experiences and student trips. The costs for each institute are shared between China via its foreign cultural outreach organization and the local Institute or university, with support from German state governments.

Flags advertising the Confucius Institute Metropole Ruhr at Duisburg-Essen university
The Confucius Institute in Duisburg canceled the reading of a controversial Xi Jinping biography in 2021Image: Fabian Strauch/dpa/picture alliance

An example of pressure exerted by Beijing was widely reported in German media in 2021 when the  Confucius Institute at the University Duisburg-Essen organized a reading of a new biography of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which included the topic of the cult of personality surrounding Xi. But after an intervention from Beijing, the institute canceled the presentation.

Institutes 'threaten to undermine academic freedom'

According to the German government, there are 19 Confucius Institutes throughout Germany, mostly based at universities.

In its annual reports, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has long classified the institutes as an instrument of political influence. "In the field of education and research, China's activities and forms of cooperation threaten to undermine academic freedom," its current report reads.

In response to growing concern, some joint initiatives have been discontinued.

In June 2022, Education and Research Minister Minister Stark-Watzinger — a member of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) — already urged the scholarly community to critically assess their cooperation arrangements with the Confucius Institutes. "We should clearly distance ourselves," she said back then, doubling down a year later.

She has now received support from Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who has said she regards the collaborations as "extremely critically from a security point of view." This drew support from Norbert Röttgen, foreign policy spokesperson for the opposition center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who wrote on Twitter "I cannot help but support the federal government on this."

A look back at recent German-Chinese relations

Appeals from federal politicians are one thing, but decisions are another. In Germany, education policy is primarily the responsibility of each of the 16 federal states. That means the federal government has no real say. With German higher education providers and universities often strapped for cash, partnerships tend to be welcome.

The German Rectors' Conference is reluctant to comment on a possible end to the collaborations. When asked by DW, spokesman Christoph Hilgert emphasized that "the decision of the universities is part of their autonomous action and should be left up to them." 

An international problem

The Education Ministry has confirmed that plans to deal with Confucius Institutes were also being discussed among European Union member states and in the European Commission.

German Green Party politician Reinhard Bütikofer, who chairs the China delegation in the European Parliament, is clear. "This is no special German problem, this is an international problem," he told DW, referring to similar cases in the US and Sweden where institutes have closed in recent years. However, according to US media reports, some individual facilities have been reestablished under new names.

The issue is also on the political agenda in the United Kingdom. There, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has repeatedly come under criticism for being too lax when it comes to China's influence. In July 2022, during his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party, he announced he would close the 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK for "promoting Chinese soft power." In May 2023, he backtracked on that pledge.

When this was met with criticism, Sunak made an issue of China's role in the world in at the end of the G7 summit in May. "They are increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad," he told reporters, speaking of "the systemic challenge that China poses to the world order."

For Bütikofer, the way forward is clear. "These institutes have been able to work in the dark for far too long. It has been obvious for a long time that they are instruments of influence for the Chinese Communist Party. And that is why we need to soberly draw a line," he said.

This article was originally published in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C