The German government has called for "clear limits" to be set up to check China's "direct influence" on science, research, and academic freedom through its Confucius Institutes. This is being seen as a step to limit the intrusive invasion by 19 Chinese Confucius Institutes operating in Germany.
Confucius Institutes are Chinese "language and culture centers" that Beijing has seeded on many foreign college campuses. They have contributed to silencing critical commentary about China, its political system, and foreign and economic policies.
The German Education Minister made the above observation in an interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt. Additionally, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) categorized China's Confucius Institutes as "a tool for political influence."
Notably, in its annual report published in 2023, the intelligence agency BfV called out China's "activities and forms of cooperation." It said that the Confucius Institutes threaten to undermine academic freedom in the field of education and research. Further, Germany's Interior Ministry also expressed skepticism about cooperation with the Confucius Institutes, which it sees "extremely critically from a security point of view."
China's Aggressiveness 'Shocking'
Germany's Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock visited China earlier this summer in 2023. She subsequently addressed the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. During the address, Baerbock described parts of her trip as "more than shocking." She noted that China has become more repressive internally, and aggressive externally. Predictably, the CCP's tabloid mouthpiece, Global Times, labeled Baerbock as someone "widely seen as a hardliner" on China.
In addition to the government, voices against the Confucius Institutes have been rising in Germany's political space as well. For instance, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) registered its opposition to their presence across Germany.
The German intelligence agencies are cautioning universities on the threats posed to their academic freedom by the growing presence and influence of Confucius Institutes. However, the universities, surprisingly, are opposing this "blanket ban." This comes despite "confirmed attempts by the Confucius Institute to exert influence" as reported by the Handelsblatt newspaper.
Meanwhile, Hannover and Duisburg-Essen have ended their partnerships with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-backed institute. Universities in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Trier have done the same.
Beijing's 'Foreign Campus Offensive'
The CCP uses the institute as part of the Party's influence strategy. CCP's influence on the Confucius Institutes stems from the fact that it gets a substantial part of its funding from the state. Beijing's "foreign campus offensive" is largely credited to the Confucius Institutes. These target academic freedom and intellectual property in the garb of enhancing "Chinese culture and history."
Many Chinese-supported student groups in the West are being used to control discussions about China and censor critics. Besides, China is increasing its efforts to control groups and individuals connected to civil society, politics, and universities. Its means of doing so include cultural influence, educational diplomacy, funding of political parties, control of student organizations, swaying policy with allies placed within other states' business and governmental elites, and the operations of the United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD is a large state intelligence organization that reports directly to the Central Committee of the CCP.
Soft Power Tactics
Apart from the UFWD and Confucius Institutes, the wider United Front Work (UFW) network of the CCP is known to wield exceptional control and authority. It uses these to shape opinions about Chinese thinking and strategy in global affairs.
Beijing has pushed a robust campaign for political ingress and influence across the West. This has been furthered primarily through political capacity-building, presence, and investments in the academic, media, and digital space, and engagement through its diplomatic corps. By means of these tools, Beijing is projecting and advancing the level and scope of economic engagement, political influence, academic access, media impact, and soft power objectives.
14 Confucius Institutes in Japan
Preceding the move by Germany, the Japanese government also decided to probe operations of all Confucius Institutes operating on university campuses in 2021. Japan's education ministry sought inquiry on the funding and its participants. It also sought information pertaining to whether the Confucius Institutes have any influence on the universities' research activities. There are 14 Chinese Confucius Institutes currently hosted across Japan, requiring no government approval at any stage.
In the said reference, Germany and Japan should highlight discussions regarding limiting the presence and scope of China's Confucius Institutes. Their operations are already being limited/shut down in multiple countries in Europe and North America. It is imperative that universities cannot be allowed to be exploited as a battlefield in China's fixated propaganda warfare.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter) @MonikaChansoria.