Instituting changes

Confucius is embraced by Beijing, rejected in Chicago

Parents take photos of students walking past a statue of Confucius, after the first test of the National College Entrance Exams in Wuhan

Great sage: Confucius on a Chinese campus

Confucius preached harmony. So one wonders what he would have made of the war of words that broke out over an international language institute bearing his name last week.

On September 24, four days before the 2,565th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth, the University of Chicago announced that it was, in all probability, closing its four-year-old Confucius Institute.

The university had been negotiating with the Chinese government for several months to extend the institute’s contract, it said, but “recently published” comments by the official in charge of the dialogue were “incompatible with continued equal partnership”.

Precisely which of Xu Lin’s comments had caused the university to “suspend negotiations” is not clear, but it is likely they were given in a long interview that she conducted with the Jiefang Daily on September 19.

The Jiefang Daily recounts how in April over a hundred of the university’s faculty members signed a letter requesting that the institute be closed down when its contract came up for renewal this year.

Xu’s reaction – which was praised by the newspaper – was simply to write a letter to the dean saying: “If your school decides to quit, I agree.”

Of course the newspaper did not explain that the petitioners were concerned about the institute’s potential damage to academic freedoms at the university, as well as the Chinese government’s treatment of academics back home (see WiC254 for news about Professor Ilham Tothi).

“American universities should not be taking money or institute funds from governments that are jailing professors and that do not provide academic freedom in their own country,” Professor Bruce Cumings at the university told the Chicago Maroon.

Of course these complaints are nothing new (see WiC244 for an earlier article on a row over the institutes) but the University of Chicago’s decision to distance itself from Hanban, the Chinese government agency that fund and runs the 465 Confucius Institutes around the world, will offend many in China, not least because of its timing.

As well as being the anniversary of the sage’s birthday, September 26 also marks the tenth anniversary of the opening of the first Confucius Institute in Seoul.

According to a new State Council ruling, the same date is to be celebrated as Confucius Institute Day from this year forward too.

Confucianism – which Mao tried to eradicate – now seems to enjoy greater support amongst China’s current crop of leaders. That became unabashedly clear when the Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a huge conference dedicated to the philosopher in the Great Hall of the People last week. “All countries and nations should learn and draw on the strength and essence of others’ ideology and culture. This is an important condition to encourage dignity, confidence and strength of native ideology and culture,” he told the attendees.

Others suggest that the ruling Communist Party is trying to resurrect Confucianism to fill some of the void left by the redundancy of Marxist and Maoist teachings, which have been displaced by 30 years of capitalism.

Adherence to Confucianism could instill a renewed sense of discipline and morality in Chinese society too – or, at least, that seems to be the hope.

But not all of China’s leading thinkers seem to be on board with the idea of a new Confucian era.

Last week the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences spoke out against the concept, suggesting instead that more modern ideologies were more resonant themes for China.

“Today, as a Communist country with its own characteristics, we’re still in the historical era that classic Marxist writers defined – one in which socialism and capitalism are involved in a fight to the death… We cannot remove class struggle from the international stage and we cannot remove it from the domestic arena either,” wrote Wang Weiguang in the Party’s journal Qiushi.

Coupled with a newspaper warning that “hostile Western forces” were guilty of overstating the death toll from the Great Famine between 1958 to 1961 (to “negate the legitimacy of the Party”), Wang’s comments seemed to symbolise a fightback from those who want Communist thinking to endure.

Netizens were less convinced, with some even questioning whether Wang and people like him had lost touch with reality.

“What era do they think we are living in?” asked one bewildered weibo user.

The Oriental Daily in Hong Kong thought there was also something ridiculous about the whole idea too: “The vested interest class in China these days are bureaucrats including Wang himself. They would become the targets of class struggle. That’s why it is impossible for the incumbents to launch a class struggle on themselves.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.