Concerns about China’s influence
What's the UG to do with the Confucius Institute?
It’s been more than eighteen months, but it’s still a complete mystery why someone mailed an anthrax hoax and a suspicious package to the Groningen Confucius Institute on January 10, 2019. That’s because no one is willing to talk about it. That day, the explosive ordnance disposal suddenly appeared on the building’s front step. The street was closed off and employees in the building were quarantined.
The powder in the envelope turned out to be harmless, but people were thoroughly scared. The front door to the building in the Oude Boteringestraat is still firmly locked even now. But that day, it became clear that something was up with the institute.
The grand opening of the institute nine years before had been a whole to-do, but now that it’s time to renew the contracts between Confucius and the UG, the question arises of whether we want the UG to be connected to an institute that’s constantly being accused of espionage and censorship.
Once upon a time, opening the Confucius Institute perfectly fit the strategy of the Groningen university, which at the time was dreaming of a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai and bringing in as many Chinese students as possible. With demographics ensuring that fewer Dutch students would attend, China would ensure the UG’s growth potential.
The institute doesn’t think it’s a suitable subject, so we rescind our invitation
It would connect Groningen to the vast Chinese culture; a collaboration between the Groningen Confucius Institute Foundation, consisting of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the city, and the UG, and the Communication University China. The institute provides Chinese language and culture courses for the university and various high schools, stimulating collaboration and exchanges. There is also the Sinology professorship, half of which is funded by the Hanban, the Confucius Institute’s headquarters. It was a beautiful example of internationalisation at the UG.
The institute was given a prominent place in a building in the Boteringestraat, right next to the board of directors. The board was formed by the UG and Hanze directors and the mayor of Groningen. Its director and deputy director hold functions within the educational institutes: director Xuefei Knoester-Cao is a policy advisor at the UG on international relations with specifically Asian universities. Deputy director Jan Klerken is a human resources consultant at the Hanze.
Then, Medialogica aired its documentary accusing the institutes of being a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. The institute in Groningen featured heavily in the programme. It was accused of banning a critical speaker when it sponsored the China Pavilion at the Amsterdam Dance Event in 2017.
Garrie van Pinxteren, China correspondent for the NRC and NOS, former practical lecturer at the UG journalism master, had been invited to speak. But she wasn’t allowed to talk about freedom of the press in China. ‘The institute doesn’t think that’s a suitable subject, and as such we rescind the invitation’, Van Pinxteren said they’d told her during a Studium Generale evening at university of applied sciences Saxion. The organisation valued GCI money over freedom of choice. ‘That’s self-censorship.’
In Groningen, the incident is condemned. ‘Banning critical speakers and only funding projects that disseminate positive information is a form of censorship’, says David Jan Meijer, faction chair of student party De Vrije Student. ‘It’s a propaganda institute, plain and simple.’
As far as Meijer’s concerned, the UG should join the growing list of universities ending their relationship with the Confucius Institute. Of the more than five hundred institutes that were opened all over the world starting in 2004, dozens closed their doors over the past two years. Most of these were located in the US, with a few in Germany, Belgium, and Leiden.
In the US, the pressure to end the relationship came from above, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refuses to hide his distrust. ‘I’m hopeful’, Pompeo said last month, ‘that we will get them all closed out by the end of the year.’ In August, Pompeo labelled the institutes as foreign missions by the Chinese government, which meant they are required to be open with the American government.
We’re basically working with a totalitarian regime
The issue is even more sensitive in Belgium. The former institute director, who was connected to the Free University of Brussels, was denied access to the country in 2019 because he was suspected of espionage. The university’s contract with the institute ended last July and was not renewed.
Last year, the University of Leiden put an end to the collaboration because ‘the institute’s activities no longer correspond to the university’s strategy for China’, the university said in a statement. Their new strategy is to focus more on research. The statement does not explain why that strategy doesn’t correspond with the institute.
It’s no surprise that the Hanban announced a name change this past summer. The new name will be Centre for Language Education and Cooperation, since ‘the current name does not promote these goals’. The Confucius Institute brand will be fully financially managed by a new ngo, the Chinese International Education Foundation, which was started by universities and companies and has no direct ties to the Chinese government.
But critics say the change is just symbolic. The institute isn’t independent of China at all, says Meijer. ‘We’re basically working with a totalitarian regime.’
Casper Albers, spokesperson for the university council’s personnel faction, is also sceptical: ‘With everything we heard from the countries around us, it’s naive to think the Chinese government has no influence here.’
Clingendael, the research institute for international relations, may have stated in a report it published last July that China isn’t explicitly influencing Dutch education through the institutes, but it did say there were cases of censorship and self-censorship.
Dutch researchers are being pressured by their Chinese contacts to self-censor when it comes to choosing research subjects, Clingendael says. This pressure takes the form of visa rejections, refusing funding, or saying the institute will look for Chinese research partners, instead. Chinese students also rarely feel free to discuss politics.
There are so many other great ways to work with foreign countries
All of this is happening in Groningen, as well. ‘Various faculties have been expressing their concerns, as have many Chinese students’, says Meijer. He refuses to provide any details, worried this might reveal the students in question. ‘We have been trying to tell the board this for three years, and for three years they’ve insisted that nothing is wrong.’
But, says Meijer, the board only meets at the institute twice a year. ‘That’s barely enough to check if they clean their bathrooms, let alone whether they’re spreading propaganda.’
Nevertheless, the recent developments seem to be having consequences. The city of Groningen, for instance, will end its thirty thousand euro subsidy in 2021. According to the budget, this is a cutback, and the institute has sufficient funding from the UG – which gives the institute 82,500 euros a year as its most important financial partner – and the Hanze.
The institute’s director, however, says everything is fine. ‘There are no impending changes at the GCI’, says Xuefei Knoester-Cao. ‘Especially not due to the name change and the changes at the Hanban.’
The contract is silently renewed every five years as long as neither party cancels it ninety days beforehand. That particular date passed this month.
Shouldn’t the government oversee the Groningen negotiations to renew the contract, the CDA recently asked education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven.
The minister said it shouldn’t, but has planned an extra information session about the Dutch scientific relationship to China later this autumn. One thing is certain: the Groningen Confucius Institute is not helping the UG’s reputation, which was damaged when the Yantai project was cancelled.
Within the UG itself, people are also increasingly voicing their criticism. Student party Calimero recently emphatically asked the board of directors to be open about the collaboration with the institute. The board promised this, but hasn’t been forthcoming with anything yet. Calimero faction chair Rozemarijn Gierkink says academic freedom is in danger. ‘We can’t just let that happen.’
‘If it were up to us, we’d end the relationship right now’, says Albers. ‘In light of China’s reputation, we shouldn’t be so closely affiliated with them. There are so many other great ways to work with foreign countries.’
Response from the RUG
‘We have taken note of the answers to the Parliamentary questions. The Groningen Confucius Institute performs a valuable task in increasing the knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Based on testimonials from course members, they are successful in this task.
Based on these experiences and our current knowledge of the situation, the UG sees no need to end this relationship. The UG is aware of the news concerning Confucius institutes and we are in contact with authorities who are informing and advising us. We are currently not actively working on renewing the Groningen contract with Hanban/Chinese International Education Foundation. The board of the Groningen Confucius Institute Foundation will discuss the agreement later this year.’