The Hindu Explains | What are Confucius Institutes, and why are they under the scanner in India?

How will it impact Beijing’s global soft power efforts? Will the Indian government’s review hamper ties?

Updated - August 09, 2020 01:09 am IST

Published - August 09, 2020 12:02 am IST

A banner is on display during the Global Confucius Institute Day celebrations at the University of Mumbai in 2019. Photo:

A banner is on display during the Global Confucius Institute Day celebrations at the University of Mumbai in 2019. Photo:

The story so far: On July 29, India’s Ministry of Education (previously the Ministry of Human Resource Development) sent a letter to several institutions seeking information about the activities of their Confucius Institutes (CIs) and Chinese language training centres. This was said to be part of a review of work being done by higher education institutions in partnership with foreign entities. The move has brought the spotlight to China’s CI programme, a key pillar of Beijing’s global soft power effort, and raised questions about the future of India-China cooperation in the education space.

Also read | Avoid politicising normal cooperation, says China on India’s Confucius Institutes move

What are Confucius Institutes (CI)?

Starting with a CI in Seoul in 2004, China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOCFL), known as Hanban, has established 550 CIs and 1,172 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) housed in foreign institutions, in 162 countries. The Hanban is under the Ministry of Education. As the Hanban explains on its website, following the experience of the British Council, Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, China began “establishing non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries”. These were named CIs.

National Education Policy 2020 | Mandarin dropped from language list

What is the presence of CIs in India?

India is reviewing the presence of CIs in seven universities, in addition to 54 MoUs on inter-school cooperation involving China, which is not connected to the CI programme. The Hanban website lists three CIs in India (University of Mumbai, Vellore Institute of Technology and Lovely Professional University) and three CCs (School of Chinese Language Kolkata, Bharathiar University, and K.R. Mangalam University) but in some of these cases, it is understood that plans did not materialise.

How have CIs been viewed around the world?

The CI arrangement has generated debate in the West, where some universities have closed the institutes amid concern over the influence of the Chinese government on host institutions, which receive funding for running the CIs. Closures of some CIs have been reported in the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Sweden. In January, the CI in the University of Maryland, the first in the U.S., closed down, citing new U.S. rules, referring to the 2018 National Defense Authorisation Act, barring universities receiving certain government assistance from also accepting Chinese funding. Faced with this backlash, China is now rebranding the programme. According to a recent directive from the Ministry of Education reported by the South China Morning Post , the Hanban has been renamed as a Center for Language Education and Cooperation, with suggestions that the Confucius Institute brand may even be dropped. While the closures in the West have made news, these cases still represent a minority. Most of the 550 CIs and more than 1,000 CCs around the world are still active, with a presence spanning Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, and across Asia, including in India’s neighbourhood in Pakistan (seven), Nepal (four), Sri Lanka (four) and Bangladesh (three), according to Hanban’s figures.

What does the CI review mean for India-China relations?

On August 6, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) suggested the government was merely following guidelines established in 2009 requiring Indian institutions entering into such agreements “supported/sponsored by an autonomous foreign organisation, including any Confucius Centre” to seek the MEA’s approval. In a statement on August 4, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi pointed out that CIs and CCs had already been in India for more than 10 years and called on India “to avoid politicising normal cooperation”. Even prior to the June 15 India-China border clash, Indian authorities had viewed the CI arrangement somewhat warily and as treading a fine line with regard to its rules for how foreign educational institutions can operate in India, but the government has at the same time worked with Hanban in other areas, for instance, signing an agreement in 2012 to train 300 Indian teachers in Mandarin with a view towards encouraging the study of Mandarin in Central Board of Secondary Education schools. Along with the new move to review CIs, Mandarin has been dropped from the list of foreign languages that can be taught in schools in the new National Education Policy. If the messaging from Delhi is that it cannot be business as usual with China after the border clash, less clear are the long-term objectives. De-emphasising learning Mandarin, experts say, is neither likely to impact China’s stance on the border, nor help India in developing the expertise and resources it needs in dealing with China.

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