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Freedom of SpeechGermany

How does Germany deal with Chinese censorship?

Nadine Wojcik
October 29, 2021

An event in Germany presenting a book about Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been canceled by China's Confucius Institutes, many of which are partners with German universities.

Plaque of Hannover Confucius Institute directly after its unveiling
The Confucius Institutes focus on Chinese language and cultureImage: Shan Yuqi/Xinhua/imago images

Talks on the biography Xi Jinping: der mächtigste Mann der Welt (Xi Jinping: The most powerful man in the world), written by German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, were supposed to be held at the Confucius Institutes in Hannover and Duisburg.

But organizers were pressured into canceling the events, said Ulrich Radtke, rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen, at the beginning of an online presentation of the book held on Wednesday that was organized at short notice as an alternative to the canceled events.

The circumstances leading to the cancelation are still being investigated, explained Radtke, who added: "This is not a random case for us; it touches on our academic freedom."

The case has led to discussions about "the long arm of Beijing," including censorship or even self-censorship.

The biography does not aim to engage in "China-bashing," the authors write in the introduction to the book. Rather, it attempts to present Xi Jinping as factually as possible so readers can "form their own opinion on the most powerful man in the world." The journalists based their work on speeches by the Chinese head of state, official sources and their own on-site research.

Chinese authorities seem to see things differently: "Our cooperating university in Wuhan has kindly explained to us that they didn't think it was a good idea to hold the event," said Markus Taube, one of the three directors of the Duisburg Confucius Institute, referring to the canceled book talk.

According to statements by the Piper publishing house, which published the biography, the Consul General of China in Düsseldorf is also said to have become involved.

Even though the authors describe their book as balanced, the Chinese government seems to be fundamentally bothered by a biography of its head of state, as a cult of personality has developed around the state leader. An employee of the Confucius Institutes is said to have pointed out to one of the authors: "You can no longer talk about Xi Jinping as a normal person; he's supposed to be untouchable now."

Connected to German universities

Such direct influence on the programming of Confucius Institutes is indeed a novelty. Since 2004, the People's Republic of China has been opening its educational institutions around the world. In Germany, there are currently 19 such Confucius Institutes. With their official goal of promoting Chinese language and culture, they are comparable to cultural institutes such as Germany's Goethe Institutes or the British Council.

With one crucial difference: The Confucius Institutes are directly connected to German universities, which provide lecture spaces and are involved in leadership. It was perhaps only a matter of time before friction arose between the democratic understanding of freedom of research on the part of Germany and the cultural policy strategy of a one-party state on the part of China.

An elderly couple look at pictures hanging on a wall
The Confucius Institutes sometimes stage exhibtions by Chinese artistsImage: Imago Images/Xinhua/Shan Yuqi

"There is a clear message from Xi Jinping that in the external presentation of China, in all channels, one should try to portray China as a modern socialist country. There is a litany of positive qualities that are supposed to be attributed to China," Professor Björn Alpermann told DW in an interview. "And the Chinese state media and the Confucius Institutes, in particular, are entrusted with this mission." It is not surprising, then, that China wants to portray itself positively when it spends money abroad, the sinologist says.

The German government is also aware of this. In answer to an inquiry by Germany's Green Party directed to the German government on the extent to which the Confucius Institutes could exert influence, the response was: "The Confucius Institutes' program is controlled by the official foreign policy cultural organization Hanban (Institute for Chinese Language Education). The Hanban reports directly to the Publicity Department, also referred to as the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China."

Partnerships canceled

Nevertheless, the Confucius Institutes are not remote-controlled propaganda machines, says Björn Alpermann. He himself has given critical lectures at the Chinese educational institutes, for example on Chinese foreign policy. The respective Confucius Institutes, he says, are very heterogeneous and design their programs independently with local partners. Since they are purely language and cultural centers, he does not see the freedom of academic thought endangered — research is not conducted there. His University of Würzburg, nevertheless, decided against a Confucius Institute when it was offered a partnership. "We have had our own very well-run program with Peking University for more than 20 years," Alpermann said.

Chinese philosopher and spiritualist Confucius
The Chinese cultural institutes borrow their name from the philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The recent upheavals are not the first disagreements: The universities of Düsseldorf and Hamburg have already terminated their partnership. The Confucius Institutes continue to exist, but they lack the prestigious logo of the respective university on their websites. Other universities were also reconsidering their cooperation even before the reading was canceled and have since suspended it.

China's wielding influence through social media

Even though he is critical of the de facto affiliation of the Confucius Institutes, Alpermann believes academic exchange is indispensable. "We can't completely stop dialogue with Chinese forces, and I would quite explicitly include the official Chinese side in that."

He argues against working exclusively with dissidents and human rights activists. "We also still need to be able to exchange ideas with academics who are close to the regime. We need to have an understanding of what's going on in Chinese politics."

He does not believe that placing cooperative relationships under the general suspicion that they are dictated by the Chinese government would be helpful. In addition, he believes that the "German public can be expected to take a critical look at things."

Book cover of "Xi Jinping: Der mächtigste Mann der Welt" (Xi Jinping: the most powerful man in the world)
The Chinese government seems to feel that Xi Jinping's status precludes any book being written on him

It is precisely this critical, reflective approach to China's external image that is currently demanded as never before.

Alpermann sees the Confucius Institutes as an instrument of possible influence rather as a "trivial matter."

"I think the much more interesting problem is actually how China is trying to impose its view of things, for example through social media." In his recently published book, Xinjiang China und die Uiguren (Xinjiang: China and the Uyghurs), he spent three years evaluating Chinese state media YouTube channels — and their portrayal of the internationally heavily criticized treatment of the Uyghur minority. The cultural genocide of the Uyghurs is justified here as, among other things, a fight against terrorism. "This is done with an incredible amount of effort, and you can already see that this argumentation catches on in some regions of the world."

This article has been adapted from German.