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Censorship Controversy Sees Rebrand for Confucius Institutes

The Ministry for Education in China has decided to rebrand its Confucius Institutes as centres for “language exchange and cooperation”.  This decision may see the UCD Confucius Institute, which was completed last year, rebranded accordingly.

The decision by the Chinese government came in response to growing criticism over censorship in the numerous Confucius Institutes around the world. Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters, is said to have ties to the China Communist Party, despite its website stating that the institutes are “non-profit public institutions”. Hanban has now changed its title to the Ministry of Education Centre for Language Education and Cooperation. Several Confucius Institutes globally have been shut down in recent years, particularly in the United States, citing growing concerns of Chinese influence and propaganda.

The South China Morning Post reported on July 4th that the decision to rebrand the institutes’ image became apparent during the online National Chinese Language Conference on June 24th. Director General of Hanban, Ma Jianfei, addressed over 4,000 teachers of Chinese language in the US, explaining that the centre “particularly hopes to expand cooperation with relevant institutions in the US” and to develop a more “focused, pragmatic, and efficient new model” for language and cultural exchanges.

By 2018, there were almost 548 Confucius Institutes established around the world and nearly 2,000 Confucius classrooms in 154 countries. Ireland is home to two of these institutes – one in UCD and the other in UCC.

The creation of the UCD Confucius Institute has been a frequent source of controversy – not just because of propaganda concerns. In 2016, President Andrew Deeks requested an extra €2.5 million from the Department of Education to complete its construction, which was refused. In 2017, the Irish Times reported that the building’s construction had run €4.8 million over budget. This was the first purpose-built centre to receive direct capital funding from the Chinese government, and President Deeks had expressed concerns that the delay in the project – originally due to be completed in 2016 – would cause a “diplomatic incident” with Beijing.

The partner university of UCD’s Confucius Institute, Renmin University in Beijing, has also attracted criticism in recent years. According to the University Times, Cornell University in the US cut its exchanges programmes with Renmin due to reported restrictions on speech and “widespread surveillance”. Three academics from Renmin University sit on the executive board of Belfield’s Confucius Institute.

It is yet to be seen whether Belfield’s Confucius Institute, a modern glass-front building overlooking the lake, will rebrand its title according to this latest news from Beijing. However, according to an agreement signed by President Deeks with Hanban, should UCD back out of hosting the institute (as did many US and European universities), it would be obliged to pay the balance of the Chinese government’s contribution at €60,000 a year.

Blathnaid Corless – Assistant News Editor