Ancient sage in the global marketplace

Three 'Confucius Institutes' open on British campuses this year. Will they be truly independent of the Chinese government?
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The Independent Online

Confucius is making a comeback. Two and a half millennia after his death, and 60 years into a regime that has, until now, either despised or ignored him, the Chinese philosopher and teacher of ethics is being resurrected to spearhead a "brand-building" exercise by the Chinese government, to be launched at universities worldwide.

Confucius certainly had a rough ride under the Communists. Until the 1980s, children were taught to see him as an apologist for feudal injustices. The capitalist free-for-all that has followed would probably have disgusted him. But in March, President Hu Jintao gave a speech drawing on Confucianism to form a new orthodoxy for the party.

Confucius makes a pretty good poster boy for the party at the moment. A venerable critic of reckless profiteering and democratic reform, he still provides a moral compass at home that does not threaten the Party, and a non-threatening image to project abroad. It is not hard to see why the new international Chinese language and culture schools have been called Confucius Institutes rather than Chinese Communist Party Cultural Centres.

Based on the model of the British Council, Goethe Institute, and Alliance Française, 100 Confucius Institutes are being set up worldwide to help to teach the growing ranks of people keen to find out more about China. Already, the Chinese government reckons that 30 million people around the world are learning Mandarin as a foreign language, and as China's economy continues to grow, that number is set to rise.

Unlike other cultural missions around the world, China is setting up all of its Confucius Institutes within the framework of local universities. Over the next year, three institutes are opening in the UK, at Manchester and Edinburgh Universities, and at the London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).

"It's very exciting," says Professor Stephen Parker, head of the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at Manchester University, "and I'm delighted we're doing this on quite a grand scale." The Confucius Institute at Manchester will cost £70,000 over the next three years. Professor Parker says that the details haven't been worked out yet, but with the university mostly contributing time and space, much of that bill is likely to be paid by Hanban, the Chinese government agency overseeing the project, which will also provide most of the staff and resources, including books. Professor Hong Liu has been recruited from the National University of Singapore to oversee the institute and the university's new Centre for Chinese Studies.

The Chinese government's interest in setting up the Confucius Institutes is clear. Professors Parker and Hong Liu agree that Chinese funding is motivated by a desire to project "soft power" abroad. But why are the universities getting involved? Manchester has close relationships with the Goethe Institute and the Cervantes Institute, among others, but China is clearly a more controversial partner than Germany or Spain.

The principal, and rather noble, motivation, says Professor Parker, is to reach out to the local community and encourage Mancunians and others in the North-west to broaden their horizons, as well as providing a cultural centre for Manchester's 30,000 Chinese residents.

The institute will also be open to students, of course, and the university hopes that it will act as a draw, particularly to valuable international students. And its resources and expertise will be available for hire to businesses. "As UK firms and the public sector engage more with China, they will need more support," says Professor Parker, "and the institute will be there to help them. We will ensure that we cover our costs and have enough to reinvest in the project," he says.

As China heads towards becoming the world's next economic and political superpower, more and more British businesses will be seeking that information and support. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes that for that relationship to flourish, more Britons must master Mandarin and learn about China. And it is not enough to plug yourself into a Linguaphone-style Mandarin course. "Culture is very important," says Andy Scott, CBI director of international and UK operations. "In the Chinese context, it's a challenging, very different market. It's not an area of which the average person will have an understanding as part of their normal education. Anything that helps to do that is beneficial."

While the CBI welcomes the Confucius Institutes, other groups are more suspicious of China promulgating such "soft power". The British-based Friends of Falun Gong, which supports the freedom of religious expression of the persecuted members of the Chinese cult, are concerned that universities that take the Communist Party's yuan may become influenced by its agenda. "You don't want to offend the paymaster," says Dr Jian Yang Luo, a spokesperson for the group, who runs a Chinese school in west London. "If you accept resources, you have to accept influence. What Falun Gong teaches is very much in the Chinese tradition. The Confucius Institutes won't mention it. In China, you have to follow government guidelines. Here, it is better, but they will still have to be careful."

In the past, British universities have, in general, done a good job of taking money from interested parties, including foreign governments. The lesson from the more controversial Islamic centres at British universities, funded by Iran and Saudi Arabia, is that as long as department heads are not appointed by the funding country, and the expertise exists within the university to monitor them, universities here can maintain academic integrity.

All of the universities, here and abroad, involved in the Confucius Institutes will have an academic appointed by the university to oversee the project. Universities are aware of concerns that they will be influenced by the Chinese government, and the issue was brought up at the inaugural meeting in China last year.

Professor Parker, however, is unfazed by such concerns. "It's not part of the framework," he says. "There's definitely a soft diplomacy angle to this, but you can't play hardball in soft diplomacy. It doesn't work. Hanban understands that."

A wise man, keen on virtue and freedom of speech

Who was Confucius?

Confucius, or Kongqiu to his friends, was born in what today is Shantung, a province of north-east China, in 551BC, and was a philosopher, teacher, educator, and statesman. He died in 479BC.

A thinker, then. But what did he think?

He was keen on virtue, which he saw as a blend of moderation, loving thy neighbour and being honest. Disgraced as a minister of justice, he was opposed to laws, which he saw as making people dishonest and making them act out of shameless self-interest rather than virtue. He believed that you made people virtuous by example, not punishment.

What is his connection with Chinese education?

Referred to as "the First Teacher", he had six disciples, who passed on his ideas and "recalled" some extra ones after his death. He believed in a well-rounded education, combining activities such as archery and lute-playing with ethics. But moral education was the most important. For him, it was better to be virtuous than to seek truth for its own sake.

How would he have fared in modern China?

He wouldn't have had a chance to experience it as he would doubtless have been killed during the Cultural Revolution.

What would he make of modern China?

Not a lot. While he was no democrat, he did believe in freedom of speech. He was opposed to luxury, and particularly the means that people use to acquire it. Very family-oriented, he would have found the Chinese one-child policy very hard to accept.