For many students, Confucius Institutes are places where they can experience Chinese culture and language. However, critics warn that these programs are a soft power play by Beijing to gain influence in the schools where they operate.
In Latin America, the Confucius Institutes have been developing since 2006. They are present in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some countries have more than one, with most located on college campuses. The institutes teach Mandarin, fund summer camps in China, support cultural events and provide scholarships to study in the communist-ruled Asian nation.
“I have the opportunity to go abroad, specifically to China, to pursue a master’s degree,” said Anthony Trujillo, an international relations student who has been learning Mandarin for two years at the Confucius Institute in India. University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.
Since the Confucius Center opened on campus in 2010, enrollment in Mandarin classes has grown from 40 to 300 active students.
“We Hispanics are looking for jobs abroad, and while the difficulty of learning Chinese is quite a challenge, it’s worth it,” said Daniela Jiménez, a 19-year-old computer science student. years.
“The Chinese government provides instructors with the study materials and then offers the option of scholarships in China for those who are proficient in the language,” explained Jake Gilstrap, author of the academic paper “Confucius Institutes of China in Latin America: Tools of Sweet Power.”
“Among them are students, professors and researchers,” he said.
Concerns about academic freedom
Gilstrap told VOA that China is seeking to create a “generation of future leaders in Latin America, who, through their close relationships and cultural understanding of China, will come to see the world in a way more like China’s worldview. And that can explicitly support many of China’s foreign policy goals.”
Parsifal D’Sola, director of the Latin American Research Center of the Andrés Bello Foundation, fears for academic freedom. He fears that the growing presence of a Chinese government-funded institution in universities in the region could lead to a decline in the production of content on subjects deemed sensitive for China, such as political freedom, censorship or repression of the Uyghur population.
“While there is greater participation of Latin American professors in research funded by some Chinese government entities, we will see less criticism within universities, which favors China in its international image,” said D. ‘Sola in an interview with VOA. .
A 2019 Human Rights Watch report on China’s threats to academic freedom outside its borders said Chinese government officials “have sought to influence academic discussions, monitor foreign students from China, to censor academic investigations or otherwise interfere with academic freedom.”
The report also states that “Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials for political reasons and employ hiring practices that consider political loyalties.”
The difference between the Confucius Institutes and other language and culture education programs such as the Alliance Française or the British Institute is that these programs do not operate inside universities, Gilstrap said.
A US State Department spokesperson told VOA that the institutes have close ties to the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, which collects intelligence on people and organizations inside the inside and outside China.
In 2009, four years after the institutes opened, then-Chinese Communist Party ideology chief Li Changchun said the institutes were “an important part of overseas Chinese propaganda.”
History of Confucius Institutes
Beijing established the Confucius Institutes in 2004. Since then, the government-funded initiative has spread to 162 countries, with more than 500 institutes worldwide and more than 1,000 classrooms under the Confucius Institutes umbrella. In each country.
In a joint action plan agreed in December by China and the countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, China pledged to open more Confucius Institutes and provide “5,000 government scholarships and 3,000 training places in China” over the next three years. .
In response to VOA’s inquiries, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said “Confucius Institutes or Classrooms are open and transparent and strictly abide by the laws and regulations of host institutions” with which they have a deal.
Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said “Confucius Institutes’ contributions have been widely applauded by universities, students and local communities in the United States.”
Professor Norberto Consani has been the local director of the Confucius Institute at the National University of La Plata in Argentina since its establishment in 2009. He is also the director of the Institute of International Relations at the same university.
Consani does not believe that universities’ relationship with Confucius Institutes affects academic freedom. He said there were no censored subjects in his university programs.
“We had very critical views regarding human rights in China,” he said.
But he acknowledged that Chinese teachers at Confucius Institutes are more reserved in their classroom interactions.
The teachers are “very careful. … They don’t teach politics or economics. Zero. Only language,” Consani said.
Confucius Institutes and Trade
The expansion of Confucius Institutes has been faster in countries with which China has established greater trade. Chile, whose main export destination is China, has two Confucius Institutes and five Confucius Cultural Halls. In Peru, there are four institutes. Brazil has 10 Confucius Institutes and three Confucius Cultural Halls. China is the main export destination for Brazil and Peru. Brazil exported 22.7% of its total products to China and Peru exported 27.9% in 2020.
Argentina, a country that recently joined China’s new Belt and Road Initiative, has three institutes.
Ecuador, a country that ranks China as its second largest trading partner, has also seen an increase in student interest in Confucius Institutes.
Alexandra Velasco, director of internationalization at San Francisco University in Quito, explains that students’ interest in Mandarin is driven by the possibility of participating in scholarships offered by China and the possibility of doing business with this country.
“It has a lot to do with imports. People I know who have gone through scholarships to get their master’s degree there (in China) had better look for, for example, a factory that helps them make something that ‘They have in mind either importing products directly from there or building relationships to send shrimp…. However, they are also interested in the academic part,’ Velasco said.
Controversy surrounding the Confucius Institutes continues, with some academic institutions and students benefiting, while countries like the United States warn that the benefits could come at the expense of academic freedom.