Will the Chinese AI get a Confucian bias?

Confucius Institute: Propaganda Tool?

Confucius Institutes (KI) are primarily intended to teach Chinese language and culture. Currently, however, criticism of the facilities is increasing again. The allegation: The connection to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prevents neutral teaching. There is even some talk of spreading Chinese propaganda. In addition, Chinese students should be eavesdropped and spy for their home country themselves. There is no solid evidence. 

There have been Confucius Institutes in Germany since 2006, now 19 of them. One of them works as an affiliated institute (editor's note: legally independent institution) with East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) in Duisburg. The institutes see themselves as mediators of Chinese language and culture, similar to the Goethe Institute for German, and provide part of the teaching. However, Goethe Institutes are independent of the state and not directly linked to universities, which is different with AI. Opponents take this fact as a frequent cause of criticism of cooperation agreements.

At the federal political level, there is criticism, especially from the FDP. But voices from university political lists are also being heard. The Liberal University Group (LHG) of the UDE demonstrated with the Young Liberals NRW last December as part of the day of action “End cooperation with China's Confucius Institutes” in front of the Duisburg facility. Main criticism: The KIs were founded as part of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

"Critical issues such as the Tibet issue, human rights violations against Uyghurs or the violent crackdown on demonstrators in Hong Kong cannot be addressed at the KIs," the LHG clarified when asked by the current. The ice-cold propaganda of an authoritarian regime is hiding behind seemingly harmless tea ceremonies and language courses. “That has nothing to do with our universities.” Similar criticism comes from the USA. There are increasing allegations of espionage, according to which Chinese students are being eavesdropped and at the same time are supposed to do espionage for the People's Republic. So far there is no concrete evidence of this.

Structural links to the Communist Party

“How should we do 'espionage'?” Asks Prof. Dr. Lifter. He is senior professor for politics and society in China at the UDE and on the board of directors of the Duisburg Confucius Institute Metropole Ruhr. Prof. Dr. Moll-Murata does not believe that political spying is taking place at KIs, "that is, we see who is attending which event." But "Chinese students abroad are under control." Moll-Murata teaches as a historian at the Faculty of East Asian Studies at RUB, one of the few universities that does not work with the AI.

Heberer also contradicts the allegations that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is influencing German teaching, for example by censoring teaching content. “We are an independent association and we are in no way affiliated with or accountable to the Chinese authorities. If China tried to intervene here, we would stop our work, ”he clarifies. AIs exist as different legal forms. An organization as a registered association ensures more distance between the university and the AI. The fact that the institute has no connections to the Chinese state is at least formally incorrect.

Three years ago, the CCP embarked on major reforms aimed at aligning the AIs. Since then, the work has been dedicated to “building a socialist culture” in the service of “diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”. In order to achieve the goal, the institute sends ideologically trained teaching staff from China to foreign institutes. This is what it says in official party papers of the so-called "Small Leadership Group for Deepening Comprehensive Reforms," ​​a central leadership body of the CCP, which is chaired by State and Party leader Xi Jinping. So the connection with the CCP is not a secret, but a fact that has also been confirmed by the Chinese side.

Classified information of the federal government for the public good

In the response of the Federal Government to a small inquiry from the FDP on the activities of Chinese AIs at German universities in 2019, it says: "The Federal Government is aware that the Chinese state or the Communist Party of China has an influence on events, teaching content and materials at Confucius Institutes in Germany. ”That results from the organizational and financial structures. The People's Republic provides trained specialist staff, financial resources and teaching material for language and cultural seminars.

The work of the institute directors at the Duisburg KI is voluntary. The Chinese Foundation for International Education can provide additional funds for projects. “In addition, AIs have income from their language courses and language exams. Many events also take place in cooperation with other local educational and cultural institutions, which also provide funds for this, ”adds Heberer.

Precisely because the evidence for any influence is so unclear, the federal government is carefully observing what is going on around the institutes, the answer to the small question continues. It doesn't get any more specific in the paper. When asked to what extent employees at German AIs receive instructions from the Chinese embassy or Chinese consulates in Germany, the Federal Government only refers to the organizational structures of the institutes. “The further answer to the question cannot be given openly for reasons of the state well-being”, the matter is treated as classified information.

Freedom of Research at Risk?

Where could a possible influence still take place? Because German KIs are mostly registered associations, they count as German corporations. All allegations did not apply to the Duisburg institute, it said at the request of the up-to-date from the UDE press office. “The Chinese supporting organization of the KIs was never subordinate to the propaganda department of the CCP, but always to the Chinese Ministry of Education.” But that does not mean that they are independent of the CCP. Until July 2020, they were linked to the umbrella organization Hanban, which was subordinate to the CCP's Central Propaganda Department. Hanban was dissolved, but in fact continues its work through the new “Center for Language Education and Cooperation” and the “Chinese Foundation for International Education”. These are linked to the Chinese Ministry of Education, which in turn follows the instructions of the CCP.


The term has a negative connotation in Germany. In the People's Republic of China, however, the term is more associated with advertising, information and education. Nevertheless, in the Western understanding, propaganda messages are anchored in everyday life there and ubiquitous.

To understand what this means, it is necessary to take a closer look at some key elements in Chinese education policy. “Within China, universities and education as a whole play a major role in promoting the values ​​of socialism and communism. They are designed to help people understand the CCP's message, ”said Dr. David O’Brien. Among other things, he is an expert on the leadership of the CCP at the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB). Universities are not places where open debates and discussions can take place. This tendency has increased enormously since Xi Jinping's presidency began in 2013.

“Universities are assigned an important role in fostering a sense of patriotism and loyalty to the communist party. There is no place in China in which these things are questioned, ”says the sinologist. Opinions that do not conform to government directives would not be tolerated. "That doesn't mean that everyone in China just sits around and says how much they love the Communist Party," emphasizes O’Brien.

Soft power as a strategy

Critics of the AI ​​are not only angry with Chinese education policy. Above all, they fear for the freedom of research. For such allegations, Prof. Dr. Heberer does not understand: “The Chinese government has not had any influence so far. The annual program is determined by the general meeting of the AI ​​independently of external influences. ”Nonetheless, opponents often use the term“ soft power ”, to which the AI ​​also contributes. Soft power is in contrast to hard power, which includes economic and military power. The soft power of a country is based on the attractiveness of its culture and its foreign policy. China therefore tries to present the national language and cultural customs in an attractive way abroad. In this way, other political actors should be convinced of their own way of acting.

This is where the AI ​​comes in again. Its task is to teach the Chinese language and organize cultural events and exhibitions. This also includes film screenings, cooking courses and lecture series by Chinese scientists on the economy, history, culture and society of China. The simplified Chinese abbreviations used on the mainland are taught. The traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong are not part of the teaching. Ironically, the regions with which the Chinese government is in conflict.

The question of how independent and complete the image of China is at these faculties remains open if the KI is to present China there as positively as possible - just like the question of transparency about who has what influence on teaching. What is certain is that the Chinese government wants to strengthen the role of AI and the United Front Department of the CCP is targeting Chinese students. The body reports directly to the party and focuses its work on people or institutions outside the party, in particular on the Chinese community abroad with social, commercial or academic influences.

China prefers to tell its story itself

Heberer cannot understand the allegations that the Chinese government is influencing the AI ​​or even carrying out propaganda. “Does anyone really believe that students would - if we were doing propaganda for China in class - accept a propagandistic expression of opinion without criticism? Students get information about China from various sources and make up their own mind, ”he is sure. However, the target group of the AI ​​is not only students, but also the interested public, who do not necessarily have prior knowledge of China.

Sinologists disagree on whether and how censored teaching takes place in KIs. In his study “Soft Power Push or Conspiracy: A Case Study of Confucius Institutes in Germany”, Sinologist Falk Hartig writes that “AIs usually tend to stay on the safe side by not dealing too much with 'sensitive' topics ". This means, for example, the dispute over the independence of Taiwan and Tibet.

Nonetheless, he considers it unlikely that propaganda will spread. O’Brien also advocates not overestimating the power of AIs. "Some of the representations of AI - that they are only there to spy on students and prevent the teaching of sensitive subjects - don't understand how universities work," he says. The institutes are small institutions with little power over the curriculum of East Asian studies. In fact, AI should not be equated with East Asian Studies.

Nevertheless, O’Brien does not consider the cooperation to be completely unproblematic. “China wants to tell its story in a very specific way. Students abroad are playing an increasingly important role in making sure that the story of the CCP is told, ”said the sinologist. The idea that Taiwan or Tibet is not taught and discussed at a German university is unbelievable to him. He clarifies: “It is fundamental that the tradition of academic freedom, which is essential for the functioning of universities, is not undermined by its relationship with an organization like the AI. If that is the case, the integrity of the university will be seriously challenged. "

Cut all connections?

Even if there is no concrete evidence of any influence on the part of China, several universities have already reacted. In some states, such as France, the institutes were closed, and in the USA state funding of AIs was prohibited. There the institutes are the official representations of the People's Republic. In Germany, too, universities are increasingly terminating their contracts. The Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf only terminated its contract in January. At the request of the akduell, the press office named as one of the reasons "the fact that the university management could not completely rule out that the Chinese state doctrine exerts an influence on the work of the institute."

Dr. O’Brien views this measure with mixed feelings. He has always seen AI employees professional and committed. “I don't think they're undercover spies. However, the AI ​​is very closely related to the CCP. ”O’Brien therefore believes it is important to understand the connection between the AI ​​and the CCP. “That doesn't mean we should cut all connections, but there should be as much transparency as possible. I would be very concerned to hear that subjects are no longer being taught because universities are afraid of damaging their relationship with AI. ”He believes that ending cooperation agreements collectively is too confrontational.

"The further answer to the question cannot be given openly for reasons of the state well-being"

He is bothered by the often negative image of AI and warns against seeing the People's Republic as absolute evil or as a world conspirator. Current narratives about China, according to which the People's Republic is planning a kind of takeover of the West, are problematic. “One of the dangers is that China, the US and Europe are moving further and further apart and slowly drifting into a Cold War. There is a lack of attempts on both sides to understand the other. ”The sinologist said that discontinuing all cooperation could strengthen that.

Cooperations with Chinese partners are currently under particular criticism. This has to do with the events in Xinjiang, among other things. Up to a million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, are believed to be held in labor camps in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Chinese government legitimizes these "centers for professional qualification and training" as necessary for the fight against Islamist terror. A lack of education and poverty are pushing Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to religious radicalization and extremism, according to the official justification. Various states, such as the USA, have now categorized dealing with the Uyghurs as genocide.

(K) A critical event at the KI

Since there is no cooperation with an AI at the RUB, it stands to reason that events critical of China can be carried out more easily. There, Xinjiang research has a permanent place in teaching. "We are planning a lecture series at which professors from all over Germany will give lectures," says Moll-Murata. The RUB historian carries out projects such as the Taiwan Days. Various academics as well as activists and cultural workers are invited to events.

It is questionable whether such actions would be possible with an AI on site. In 2013, the Duisburg KI organized an event entitled “China and its minorities - between tolerance and repression”, which dealt with minority politics in connection with Tibet and Xinjiang. Since the situation has worsened in Xinjiang in recent years, the AI ​​has not been offering any comparable lectures. The German AIs have so far been reluctant to take a clear position on the Uyghur re-education camps.

Moll-Murata also considers it very unlikely that the KI could offer an event on Taiwanese politics in addition to cultural events such as calligraphy exhibitions. However, she emphasizes: “Leading scientists research and teach China's politics, economy and society at the In-East Institute for East Asian Studies in Duisburg.” She also praises the collaboration between the RUB and the Duisburg colleagues, including those from the KI. “We work very well with Duisburg. We are networked in the AREA Ruhr (Alliance for Research on East Asia) and carry out joint projects. This results in an interesting range of topics for the students. "