Washington - For many students, Confucius Institutes are places where they can learn about Chinese culture and language. However, critics warn that these programs are a soft power play by Beijing to gain influence in schools where they operate.
In Latin America, Confucius Institutes have been expanding since 2006. They have a presence in 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some countries have more than one, with most located on university campuses. The Institutes teach Mandarin, finance summer camps in China, support cultural events and grant scholarships to study in the communist-ruled Asian nation.
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'I have the possibility of going abroad, specifically to China, to pursue a master's degree,' said Anthony Trujillo, an international relations student who has been learning Mandarin for two years at the Confucius Institute at San Francisco de Quito University in Ecuador.
Since the opening of the Confucius Center on campus in 2010, enrollment in Mandarin classes has grown from 40 to 300 active students.
'We Hispanics look for job offers abroad, and although the difficulty of learning Chinese is quite a challenge, it is worth doing,' said Daniela Jimenez, a 19-year-old computer science student.
'The Chinese government provides the instructors the study material, and then offers the option of scholarships in China to those who achieve proficiency in the language,' explained Jake Gilstrap, author of the academic paper 'Confucius Institutes of China in Latin America: Tools of Soft Power.'
'Among them are students, professors and researchers,' he said.
A bookshelf at the headquarters of the Confucius Institute at the University of La Plata in Argentina.
Concerns about academic freedom
Gilstrap told VOA that China is seeking to create a 'generation of future leaders in Latin America, that through their close relationships and cultural understanding of China will come to view the world in a way that is more similar to China's worldview. And it may explicitly support many of China's foreign policy aims.'
Parsifal D'Sola, director of the Andres Bello Foundation's China Latin American Research Center, fears for academic freedom. He worries that the growing presence of an institution financed by the Chinese government within universities in the region may lead to a decline in the production of content on topics considered sensitive to China, such as political freedom, censorship or the repression of the Uyghur population.
'While there is a greater participation of Latin American professors in research financed by some Chinese government entities, we will see less criticism within the universities, which is something that favors China in its international image,' D'Sola said in an interview with VOA.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks as he attends the opening of the UCL Institute of Education Confucius Institute annual conference in London, Oct. 22, 2015.
A 2019 Human Rights Watch report on China's threats to academic freedoms outside its borders said Chinese government officials 'have sought to influence academic discussions, monitor overseas students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom.'
The report also said, 'Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.'
The difference between the Confucius Institutes and other language and culture teaching programs such as the Alliance Francaise or the British Institute is that those programs do not operate inside universities, Gilstrap said.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told VOA that the institutes have strong ties to the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee, which gathers intelligence on people and organizations internally and outside of China.
In 2009, four years after the institutes opened, Li Changchun, then-head of the Chinese Communist Party's ideology, said the institutes were 'an important part of China's overseas propaganda setup.'
History of the Confucius Institutes
Beijing created the Confucius Institutes in 2004. Since then, the government-funded initiative has expanded to 162 countries, with more than 500 institutes worldwide and more than 1,000 classrooms under the umbrella of Confucius Institutes in each country.
In a joint action plan agreed to in December by China and the countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, China has committed to opening more Confucius Institutes and providing '5,000 government scholarships and 3,000 training places in China' over the next three years.
FILE - Chinese language teachers talk to a Nigerian student at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos, April 6, 2016.
In response to VOA's inquiries, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said 'the Confucius Institutes or classrooms are open and transparent and come in strict compliance with the laws and regulations of the host institutions' with which they have an agreement.
Liu Pengyu, the Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington, said the Confucius Institutes' 'contributions have been widely applauded by universities, students and local communities in the United States.'
Professor Norberto Consani has been the local director of the Confucius Institute at the National University of La Plata in Argentina since it was founded in 2009. He is also the director of the Institute of International Relations of the same university.
Consani does not believe the relationship of universities with the Confucius Institutes affects academic freedom. He said there are no censored topics in his university programs.
'We have had very critical opinions regarding human rights in China,' he said.
But he acknowledged that Chinese teachers at the Confucius Institutes are more guarded in their classroom interactions.
Teachers are 'very cautious. ... They don't teach politics or economy. Zero. Only the language,' Consani said.
Confucius Institutes and trade
The expansion of the Confucius Institutes has been faster in countries with which China has established a greater commercial exchange. Chile, whose main export destination is China, has two Confucius Institutes and five Confucius cultural halls. In Peru there are four institutes. Brazil has 10 Confucius Institutes and three Confucius cultural halls. China is Brazil and Peru's main export destination. Brazil exported 22.7% of its total products to China, and Peru exported 27.9% in 2020.
Argentina, a country that recently joined China's new Belt and Road Initiative, has three institutes.
Ecuador, a country that lists China as its second-ranked trading partner, has also seen an increase in student interest in Confucius Institutes.
Alexandra Velasco, director of Internationalization at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, explains that students' interest in Mandarin is driven by the possibility of participating in scholarships offered by China and the option of doing business with that country.
'It has a lot to do with imports. The people I know who have gone through scholarships to get their master's degrees there (China) have an interest in looking for, for example, a factory that helps them manufacture something they have in mind or import products directly from there or establish relationships to send shrimp. ... However, they are interested in the academic part, as well,' Velasco said.
The controversy surrounding Confucius Institutes continues with some academic institutions and students benefiting, while countries such as the U.S. warn the benefits may come at the cost of academic freedoms.