China Confucius Institutes face heat over propaganda

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India’s education ministry has decided to review in the coming week, the setting up of local chapters of the Confucius Institutes in association with seven local colleges and universities after security agencies alerted it to the growing Chinese influence in higher education in India.

The ministry also plans to review 54 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) signed between prestigious educational institutions including IITs, BHU, JNU and NITs and Chinese institutions. It has already issued a notification to the Ministry of External Affairs and the University Grants Commission.

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The Confucius Institutes are directly funded by Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China with the ostensible aim to promote Chinese language and Culture. But they have come in for criticism all around the world, including the US and the UK for helping spread Chinese propaganda. Most recently, according to a BBC report of September 2019, Australia launched an investigation of “whether the agreements between universities and the institute have broken anti foreign-interference laws”.

Around the same time, several universities around the world shut down programmes operated by the institute, that report added.

Ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee have been quoted saying that Confucius Institutes are part of the overseas propaganda to project Beijing’s soft power.

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The decision to review the Confucius Institutes and the MoUs comes at a time when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been amassing more than 50,000 troops, tanks, missiles and artillery guns in occupied Aksai Chin, in an open display of aggression against India along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The PLA has even spread the deployment to the middle sector in Uttarakhand and the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh.

According to high ranking officials in the government, the Confucius Institutes in India to be reviewed are at: the University of Mumbai; Vellore Institute of Technology; Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar; . O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat; School of Chinese Language, Kolkata; Bharathiar University, Coimbatore; and KR Mangalam University, Gurugram.

The officials, who asked not to be named ahead of the review said Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University also has an MoU with Hanban (the Confucius Institute’s HQ) though it hasn’t set up a centre.

“The MoU was signed between JNU and Peking University around 2005 during the-then Chinese premier’s visit to India. The institute was never set up since there some disagreements over constitution of the board . Since the MoU was signed for five years, it lapsed. Chinese officials wanted to revive it later but the university did not show much interest,” said sinologist BR Deepak, chairperson at JNU’s Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, who was an associate professor at the varsity when the MoU was signed.

The education ministry called the review after security agencies made a presentation before Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba on July 15 to red-flag Chinese penetration in the Indian telecommunication sector and higher education. The meeting was attended by the senior-most secretaries to Government of India. It was in this meeting that the decision to review Beijing’s presence in the two highly sensitive sectors was taken.

It isn’t clear what the government will decide after the review but HT learns that the education ministry will question the universities, colleges and institutions whether they took permission from it (until recently, the ministry of HRD) or the ministry of external affairs before signing the MoUs with Chinese universities or Hanban.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the education ministry is acting along these lines. On October 1, 2019, the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a circular asking universities to get approvals from the central government before offering courses in association with any Chinese institutions. The University of Mumbai maintained that the circular was not valid for existing institutes. “The (Confucius) Institute first started eight years ago with a grant that came from the Chinese government of about ₹90 lakh. Ever since there’s been no additional grants but we have managed to keep the institute up and running by increasing courses,” said Vibha Surana, director of the Confucius Institute at the university. She added that learning Mandarin “has opened many job prospects for students in the past.” The Confucius Institute was established in 2013 at the University of Mumbai following an MoU with Hanban in the same year. It was set up as an apex Chinese institution providing standard international certification and assuring quality Chinese language teaching.

There was no response to queries seeking comment from KR Mangalam University and Lovely Professional University. HT couldn’t immediately reach the other universities and colleges that have partnered to set up Confucius Institutes.

Among the other MoUs reviewed by the ministry will be those involving the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) with top Chinese technical institutions for research, student and faculty exchange, and language courses. These institutions account for around 30 of the 54 MoUs.

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