Calming concerns on Confucius Institute

The cultural and linguistic benefits flowing from hundreds of Confucius Institute Chinese teaching and learning centres around the world far outweigh concerns they pose a risk to political or academic freedom in western countries, Flinders academic Jeffrey Gil says.

Dr Jeffrey Gil, senior lecturer in Languages and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.

The Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organisation established by the Ministry of Education in China in 2004, has taken off rapidly promoting Chinese language and culture, supporting local Chinese teaching, and facilitating cultural exchange with partner universities and schools which host the centres around the world.

However, two Confucius Institutes at US universities and another in Canada have closed recently amid controversies about academic freedom and concerns the organisation represents an attempt by China to extend its influence globally through the use of ‘soft power’.

Flinders University academic Dr Gil says the 500-plus Confucius Institutes are playing an increasingly important role in the West as China emerges as a leading global economy, and business and travel opportunities rapidly open in mainland China.

“These institutes are making very valuable contributions to Chinese language learning and it’s clear there are now so many institutes in so many countries because of the demand for these classes,” says Dr Gil, a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages and Applied Linguistics at Flinders.

“It’s not so much that China is pushing something on overseas countries, but providing a service that people want.”

His new book – Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project – is looking at the rise of the Confucius Institute and the issues which have emerged about the influence they wield.

Since 2004, thousands of students have taken Confucius Institute courses, including in Mandarin language and Chinese cultural awareness and joined sponsored student exchange programs conducted in mainland China. The posting of Chinese language teachers to overseas schools and universities and the Chinese Bridge language competition are other Confucius Institute activities.

“Apart from these controversies in North American and public concerns in other countries, the National Association of Scholars in America has been very critical of the Confucius Institute.

“However, it’s generally acknowledged by those involved that Confucius Institutes are providing support for Chinese language learning and teaching which is clearly in demand around the world,” Dr Gil says.

Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project (2017) has been published by Multilingual Matters.

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