On Monday night, Yu Jie (余杰), a prominent Chinese dissident living in exile in Fairfax, Virginia, visited Georgetown to address around 70 eager students in McShain Lounge Large. Jie’s main message was to urge students in Western universities to be weary of Chinese Communist Party motivations behind Confucius Institutes in an event sponsored by The Lecture Fund, GUSA, the Asian Studies Department, and the Office of Residence Life.
Hailing from Chengdu in rural and relatively poor western Sichuan province, Yu has spoken out in the past against issues ranging from forced labor camps to persecution of the home church movement. After publishing China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, in which he thoroughly criticizes the Chinese Premier’s human rights record, and cozying up next to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, Yu was put on house arrest for over a year. To avoid further persecution, Yu emigrated to the U.S. in January 2012.
To a crowd of Chinese and Chinese-American students, Yu discussed (in Chinese with an English translator) how Chinese president Hu Jintao has used state-sponsored Confucian Institutes to teach foreigners Chinese language and culture, all the while inculcating them into trusting the Chinese Communist Party.
Though his presence was generally received positively, many in the crowd pressed Yu with tough questions concerning a range of topics, from Bo Xilai’s recent fall from grace to hopes for democratization at the local level. In particular, many students voiced issue with the fact that Yu overlooked the benefits of the Confucius Institutes with regards to cultural exchange and language instruction. Georgetown itself has a unique institutional relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, though the tricky relationship wasn’t discussed.
According to Yu, the spread of Confucius Institutes is an example of China’s growing desire for soft power alongside a rising military. Citing state-sponsored advertisements by Chinese media outlets in New York, Yu proposed that symbols of pandas, the Great Wall, and martial arts are “replacing the symbols of the Communist Party.” In addition to giving pandas as gifts to Western nations, Yu cautioned that the Institutes were another way of “spreading propaganda overseas.”
In total, the Chinese government has set up some 358 Confucius Institutes worldwide. Despite their namesake, Yu warned students that the goal of the Institutes is not to spread Confucian ideology, but to teach language, culture, and history, while making Westerners forget that China is still a Communist country that violates basic human rights. Referencing a popular Chinese idiom, Yu claimed that the Institutes “Peddle Confucius, but sell Maoism instead.”
Providing several anecdotes from personal experiences, including his abduction by Chinese secret police, Yu explained how the Institutes and those educated in them are never able to criticize the Chinese government. For Yu, this fundamentally threatens academic freedom and intellectual independence of Western universities. The Director of the London School of Economics actually resigned because they were willing to accept money from Muammar Qaddafi, but there has been no response to the presence of Confucius Institutes, which are directly funded by the CCP.
Photo: Lucia He