Since 2004, Confucius Institutes and its attendant Classrooms are everywhere on the global stage. The non-profit Institutes partner with China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (known as Hanban), a Chinese university and a foreign university. Their main function is teaching Chinese language and culture.

Confucius Classrooms operate along similar lines in primary and secondary schools. According to Hanban’s website, there were 512 Confucius Institutes and 1,073 Confucius Classrooms across 140 countries and regions by the end of 2016.

That Confucius Institutes and Classrooms have been able to spread to such an extent in just 13 years is due in no small part to the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms demand for Chinese-language learning. Estimates of the number of people learning Chinese vary from 30 million to 100 million.

Confucius Institutes and Classrooms have created new opportunities to learn Chinese and enhanced existing ones in various ways, including through providing teaching staff and materials, conducting classes for the public and running extracurricular activities for students. This may seem like a perfect match — millions of people around the world eager to learn Chinese, and Confucius Institutes and Classrooms can provide opportunities and resources to do so.

However, the spread of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms has not always been harmonious. They have attracted controversy since the early days, most of which centered on concerns they could restrict academic freedom, spread propaganda and give the Chinese government control over curriculum and teaching.

While there is little evidence to support such claims, criticisms have not ended. At the same time, several practical and organizational issues hinder the work of the two entities, namely the relationship with existing Chinese departments and programs, the quality of teaching staff, and their long-term sustainability.

Here are some ways to improve the situation:

Universities and schools are often underfunded and under-resourced, especially when it comes to language education, and Confucius Institutes and Classrooms offer readily available resources to establish, maintain and enhance Chinese language and culture education.

However, universities and schools must ensure the two complement, rather than compete with, existing Chinese-language and culture education. This can be achieved through specializing in a particular area, and there are already examples of such Confucius Institutes, including: a Chinese medicine Confucius Institute at RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia), an arts Confucius Institute at Goldsmiths University of London and a Chinese opera Confucius Institute at State University of New York at Binghamton. A specialization can be chosen by considering the strengths and priorities of both the foreign and Chinese universities. Confucius Classrooms have yet to follow the specialization route, perhaps because they are focused on primary and secondary schools, but the principle still applies. One worthwhile option would be to establish Confucius Classrooms at vocational schools and colleges.

Demarcate and communicate
Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are located in universities and schools and while this unique characteristic has advantages such as sharing costs and physical resources, it also raises organizational issues. In cases where Chinese-language and culture education existed before the establishment of a Confucius Institute or Classroom, universities and schools will need to ensure they interact smoothly.

For example, how will a Confucius Institute relate to a university’s Chinese department? What will a school’s Chinese teacher do once a Confucius Classroom is established? Addressing these questions requires clearly setting out who will do what and maintaining clear lines of communication between all parties. The intended audience for teaching and other activities, the administration of scholarships, and duties of teaching staff are some of the matters which will need attention.

Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are among the newest language- and culture-promotion organizations in the world. Others have existed much longer, notably Alliance Francaise (founded 1883), the Dante Alighieri Society (founded 1889) and the British Council (founded 1934). Whether Confucius Institutes and Classrooms last as long depends on China’s ongoing ability and desire to fund them and their capacity to resolve the practical and organizational issues they encounter in day-to-day operations. Collaborating with other organizations will benefit Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in a number of ways.

First, it will make them less vulnerable to changes in China’s economic and political situation through sharing resources. These organizations have also accumulated experience in the promotion of language and culture which could serve as a model for Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. Finally, these organizations have not been criticized to the extent Confucius Institutes and Classrooms have, and they have generally positive reputations. Collaboration could improve the image of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms by association.

Many governments are implementing policies to increase the Chinese language proficiency of their citizens, and the opportunities and resources offered through Confucius Institutes and Classrooms should be part of such efforts. But governments won’t be able to take full advantage of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms if they fail to address the concerns of their citizens.

In 2014 Canadian parents in Toronto protested to stop a plan to establish Confucius Classrooms in city schools. Meanwhile, the “Say No to Confucius Institutes and Classes in Australia” Facebook page carries an online petition to ban Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms. Governments should raise concerns with China during their usual interactions and advocate for adjustments that would make Confucius Institutes and Classrooms acceptable to their citizens.

Step back
For its part, China needs to consider ways to reduce the government connection to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. The chair of Hanban’s board of directors, Liu Yandong, is a vice-premier and member of the Politburo, while its director-general, Xu Lin, is a member of the State Council. Hanban itself is under the ministry of education and its membership is composed of representatives from 12 government ministries and commissions. This shows the importance China attaches to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, but it also fuels perceptions there is untoward government influence, regardless of whether there is evidence to support this. This could be remedied by having academics, business people and practitioners in the language and culture field in Hanban positions instead of government and Communist Party officials.

With some adjustments from all those involved, Confucius Institutes and Classrooms can set a harmonious path toward Chinese language and culture education.

Jeffrey Gil

Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.

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