Deutschlandradio Interview with J.-M. Rudolph: can Universities keep Confucius Institutes and Science Apart?

The following is a translation of a Deutschlandradio Kultur interview with Jörg-Meinhard Rudolph – or a translation of most of the interview. The questions were asked by Dieter Kassel, and the interview was published on the Deutschlandradio website on February 6.

Kassel: The Germans have their Goethe Institute, the English have the British Council, and the Spaniards have the Instituto Cervantes. And the Chinese? They have the Confucius Institute. It hasn’t been around for too long; the first one was founded in South Korea, in 2004. But there have been Confucius Institutes in Germany since 2006, and by now, there are thirteen of them. Eleven reside at German universities, and another one at a university of applied science. This practice, [the Confucius Institute’s] cooperation with domestic universities, has led to criticism, everywhere in the world. In Germany, too, some experts are asking what the whole purpose of these Confucius Institutes is. Jörg-Meinhard Rudolph is a sinologist, he is a college lecturer at the University of Ludwigshafen’s East Asia Institute, and joins us on the line from Frankfurt/Main. Hello, Mr. Rudolph!

Rudolph: Hello, Mr. Kassel!

Kassel: This comparison, that the Confucius Institute in China is exactly the same thing, as the Goethe Institute is within Germany’s foreign- and cultural policy – is that an appropriate comparison?

Rudolph: It is not. When you are referring to the Chinese and to the Germans, one needs to ask who is standing behind it. After all, it isn’t the 1.3 billion Chinese people or 80 million Germans who operate them. The Goethe Institutes are state-run institutes, paid for by the foreign office, with tax money. The German Bundestag’s budget committee decides about the funding, and everyone here in this country can scrutinize that, and find out what’s going on there, and the employees abroad are appointed after an invitation to apply.

That’s completely different when it comes to the Confucius Institutes. In the People’s Republic of China, there’s a state, too, but there is also someone who rules that state, the Communist Party of China, who  confirm that on their website: we are the only governing party here. And behind the Confucius Institutes, there are top party departments, up to number five in the hierarchy, who welcomes the institutes’ delegates when they have a conference. The man is also in charge of ideology and propaganda, for suppression of diversity of opinion, and similar issues. Further down, there’s a huge apparat, made up by many departments of the Chinese central government, including those in charge of censorship, and similar ones. You can’t compare that. Nobody can look inside, it’s not transparent. That’s the issue – this is a political party, an interest group, which launches all these institutes here, which can’t be scrutinized by anyone in the People’s Republic of China. That’s a big, crucial difference.

Kassel: Alright, that’s the crucial difference between the two states, of course. The Federal Republic of Germany is a parliamentary democracy, and the People’s Republic of China surely isn’t.

Rudolph: No, in China, you don’t even have elections as you have them in Belorussia, or in Iran. […] If you want to stick to this comparison, one could at best say that both of these institutes are meant to promote the states they come from, for those who finance them. They are meant to create a good atmosphere, put positive things across, etc. That’s what the Chinese say, too. We have the China Cultural Year here in Germany right now, with the Confucius Institutes being involved. The Chinese party leadership talks about exerting soft power abroad, and the Confucius Institutes are to help  with that. This soft power has been defined for this cultural year, too. A new image of the People’s Republic of China is to be conveyed, as open, progressive, tolerant, and bustling.

The issue isn’t that the Confucius Institutes do that – that’s alright, and I have no problem with that. But that German universities, or universities at all, which are meant to be free and independent, are taking part in it, and get paid for it, that’s the issue. The Chinese want to do their propaganda, the Germans, too, for all I care, and let’s see who’s doing better, but that universities and professors provide their reputation to this end, that, in my view, is not acceptable.

Kassel: The university in question say, almost in unison, that they are able to keep these things separate. The Confucius Institutes are located within the universities – you mentioned that, some of them are renowned universities, Freie Universität Berlin, Düsseldorf University, Nürnberg-Erlangen and many others -, but they all say that they keep this separate: we have the Confucius Institute on the campus, there are language courses there, and cultural events, but our sinology institute is still free and independent.

Rudolph: That’s not quite right. The [censoring] scissors are at work in the heads of these people. They know exactly that, if they are sinologists, for example, having cooperations or research, field research in China, they can’t do it the way Chinese, for example, can do it here. They have to cooperate with Chinese bodies. In many cases, these, too, are sub-departments of the central committee. And everyone knows what happens if you attend a talk by the Dalai Lama, for example. There are university boards who don’t go there, and they will tell you why: because they fear that their cooperations will suffer. That, in my view, is not in order. This is where you have to safeguard your independence. After all, that’s how universities came into being in Europe, during the 12th century – as independent institutions.

Kassel: I’d like to quote Michael Lackner, sinologist in Nürnberg-Erlangen, at the sinology department there, and also deputy chairman of the Confucius Institute there. He doesn’t contest what you say. You mentioned the Dalai Lama, and Michael Lackner once said, analogously, that for him, too, the Confucius Institute isn’t the right place to “discuss Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tian An Men massacre”, but added within the same reply that he’s not doing it there, but he’ll walk over to the sinology institute, and  can discuss these things freely there. Don’t you think that this works?

Rudolph: If this is what he does, let’s see what’s going to happen at the Confucius Institute this year, once the material, announced by the Chinese state agency, about Tibet will be published, and which the Confucius will explicitly be provided with, too. That, and other cultural procurement we’ve touched upon. It will all be on display there, it all comes from the People’s Republic of China. Let’s see what they will say about Tibet, or Xinjiang, or other issues. It seems to me that it would be the right time then to discuss one or another of these issues after all. If that should be possible at the institutes, that would certainly spell progress.


Kassel: Has the presence of the Confucius Institutes, and cooperation with them, really led to tangible consequences, in your view? There is this criticism, in the media, that German sinologists don’t get frequently involved in discussions in Germany, about the way the People’s Republic deals with dissidents.

Rudolph: Yes, they contain themselves in this field, that’s true. I’ve seen this myself, when the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Liu Xiaobo, when Liu…

Kassel: … when it went to Liu Xiaobo, yes, …

Rudolph: … and at the time, I was contacted by some of your colleagues, and often, when I said yes, and glad to discuss this with you, there was this interjection: at last someone who’s willing to discuss this! – Yes, you could say that there is some reservation. It is, of course, an issue what German sinology is doing here, as to how they provide information, and it isn’t a real lot, I believe. What annoys me, for example – but I’m not quite innocent there, either -, is that the big China bestsellers in this country have all been written by people who can’t even read a Chinese newspaper. And yes, I’d blame a certain failure of sinology.

Kassel: Then I won’t keep you from getting down to work and write the next bestseller!

Rudolph: Okay!


Deutschlandradio added a disclaimer, saying that interviewees’ statements reflect their own views, and that the station doesn’t adopt such statements as its own.



» He Who Pays the Piper, Jan. 30, 2012
» Come on, Let’s Twist Again, May 26, 2011

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