China’s Confucius Institute, a controversial arm of the Chinese regime’s public diplomacy apparatus, is coming under pressure in Russia, with prosecutors from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far east of the country calling for the local branch to be closed because it is not properly registered with the authorities.
In a complaint to the city court on July 27, a Blagoveshchensk prosecutor said that the Confucius Institute branch in the local Blagoveshchensk State Pedagogical University (BSPU) should be formally registered as a foreign cultural center, reports Moscow Times. He added that the institute is presently violating Russian law because it is avoiding taxes in hiring foreign teachers as an unregistered non-commercial organization. There are 11 native Chinese teachers, of whom 4 are volunteers, at the Blagoveshchensk Confucius Institute, according to its website.
In response, BSPU says that the institute, which is run as a joint project with a college in the neighboring northern Chinese city of Heihe, is part of its own organization, according to a statement on Amur.info, a local news website. Also, “the institute’s activities do not pose any threat to the social and political structure of Russia,” the BSPU statement read.
But in the past two years, educational institutes in Russia and other countries have come to a very different conclusion about Confucius Institutes, a Beijing-run and funded Chinese language and culture promotion program that is integrated with universities and schools overseas since its establishment in 2004.
In December 2014, Sweden’s Stockholm University announced the closure of its Confucius Institute, which was set up in 2005, on grounds that better links with China made the institute redundant and what they said was the “questionable” practice of allowing a foreign-funded institute remain a part of the university.
In North America, several colleges—the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University in the United States, and McMaster University and the University of Sherbrooke in Canada—too cut ties with their Confucius Institutes between 2013 and 2014 after local controversies which highlighted the overtly political nature of the institutes.
In 2010, a college in the far eastern Russian republic of Sakha closed its Confucius Institute because it was found to have “promoted the penetration of the Chinese ideology and economic expansion to the territory of Russia,” according to Russian newspaper “The Businessman” (Kommersant).
The Party itself has admitted that Confucius Institutes are part of the regime’s soft power projection efforts abroad—former Party propaganda chief Li Changchun said they are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Many commentators have likened Confucius Institutes to a Chinese Trojan Horse because Communist Party rhetoric and worldview—Taiwan is part of mainland China, criticisms of the Dalai Lama, labeling Uyghur rights activists as “terrorists”—are spread to countries under the guise of culture.
Confucius Institutes also exports Party censorship. For instance, it discriminates against practitioners of Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline that is being persecuted in China—the most notable case being that of Sonia Zhao, a former teacher at McMaster University who was required to sign a statement promising that she would not practice Falun Gong in order to obtain her position.
Russian and Chinese education ministries discussed the case in Beijing the day it went to court, said the institute’s director Nikolai Kukharenko to Moscow Times. It is unclear if any resolution was reached, but the case will resume again on Aug. 4.