Eleven universities in Germany host Confucius Institutes, which are financed by China. Are German universities at risk of becoming mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party?
In 2007, Hu Jintao told the 17th Communist Party Congress that China needed to increase its soft power. China wants to win over the hearts and minds of people abroad by presenting language and culture in an attractive way. Some 370 Confucius Institutes across the world are part of this strategy and there are 11 of them at German universities.
The institutes offer inexpensive Chinese language courses, lectures on Chinese culture and economic development and put on cultural events. "There is a great demand for learning Chinese and finding out about Chinese culture," says Jiang Feng, head of the education department at the Chinese embassy in Berlin. And of course the institutes also promote cultural, educational and economic exchange, he adds.
Chinese state influence
Confucius Institutes appear to be similar to German Goethe Institutes. But there is one main difference: Goethe Institutes abroad are self-contained establishments, whereas Confucius Institutes are attached to foreign universities abroad. Jörg-Meinhard Rudolph from the East Asia Institute at the Ludwigshafen University of Applied Sciences thinks the setup is problematic. The sinologist accuses German universities of allowing themselves to be taken in by the Chinese government's soft policy strategy.
Of the 12 Confucius Institutes in Germany, 11 are run jointly by a German university, a Chinese partner university and the Office of Chinese Language, which is part of the education ministry. The institutes are predominantly financed by the Chinese state and the German university provides the space. The heads are usually Chinese sinologists.
Rudolf criticized the cooperation between German universities and Confucius Institutes in an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last November, thus triggering a heated debate.
Last week, advocates and opponents of the Confucius Institutes in Germany met at the China Center in Hannover. In addition to Rudolf and Jiang Feng, the gathering also heard from Michael Lackner, head of the sinology department at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and deputy head of its Confucius Institute.
Rudolf reiterated his fear that Chinese studies lacked independence. He said it was unacceptable that German universities were working with the highest organs of the authoritarian Communist Party of China, and even accepting money from it.
Anyone who cooperates in such projects in a free country must be very careful with whom he works and make sure he is not becoming dependent, he said.
He pointed out that no democratic party in Germany financed an institute at German universities and yet they are accepting money from the undemocratic Chinese Communist Party.
He was especially interested in the events that do not take place at the institutes in Germany. Tibet, Taiwan or the massacre on Tiananmen Square are not discussed in Germany's Confucius Institutes, he criticized.
But Michael Lackner rejected the accusation that Chinese funders had direct influence on the cultural program. On the contrary, he says he has noticed that the German universities have had an influence. "I am not sure whether Confucius Institute Headquarters really know what Chinese culture is," he said. Thus German academics could help define Chinese culture as a world culture, he said.
Lackner admits, though, that Confucius Institutes are not necessarily the right place for debates on topics pertaining to touchy subjects like Tibet. In order to avoid offending the Chinese sponsors, Lackner says such topics are better discussed at the universities' sinology departments.
Author: Christoph Ricking / act / sb
Editor: Darren Mara