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Confucius centres welcome, with rider

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  • Published 25.07.13

New Delhi, July 24: Chinese toys, mobile phones and clothes have flooded India’s markets for over a decade. Now a previously forbidden cultural element from China is set to become available to Indian minds.

India has reluctantly agreed to allow the Chinese government’s global cultural outreach centres named after iconic philosopher Confucius at its universities after blocking for eight years what it sees as Beijing’s efforts at spreading its soft power.

The Confucius Institutes, modelled on the British Council, American Center, Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute, will teach Mandarin, Chinese martial arts and host film and literary events.

But unlike the British, Americans, French or the Germans, the Chinese will have to adhere to tougher riders, New Delhi has told Beijing.

“This isn’t an unconditional, open invitation to China,” a senior diplomat told The Telegraph. “We want cultural exchanges between the two nations, but we also have concerns that we don’t with the US, the UK, France or any of the other European nations.”

The decision to allow Confucius Institutes is a direct outcome of a rapidly burgeoning demand in India for Chinese language learning opportunities.

As more and more Indian and multinational companies build business ties with Chinese firms, professionals and organisations are looking to understand a culture that has historical relations with India.

Although several private institutions offering crash courses in Chinese have mushroomed in Indian cities in recent years, few have the resources of government-supported institutions.

The Confucius Institutes — run by a Beijing-based government body known as the Hanban were first launched in 2004 in Tashkent and Seoul as China felt the need to expand its soft power presence globally.

The choice of Confucius as the name bearer of Chinese culture was both a recognition of his global following and a reinforcement of the distance China has travelled since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution when anything associated with the philosopher was labelled retrograde.

China recognised the opportunity its economy had presented to enter India’s cultural consciousness in 2005 and approached Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that has several language schools.

JNU agreed and allotted a room on its campus to begin the collaboration. But Indian suspicions about China’s intentions drove the project to ground, with the government declining to give approvals.

A second attempt by China, this time to set up a Confucius Institute at the Vellore Institute of Technology, took off only as a Chinese language centre, shorn of the label associated with the philosopher credited with penning many of China’s greatest early works.

Today, over 300 Confucius Institutes dot the globe, including in the US that, like India, has had tense diplomatic relations with China. India has none.

Mumbai University hopes to change that soon. The varsity last week announced plans to start offering programmes at a new Confucius Institute on its Kalina campus.

“We will have Chinese coaches coming to teach Kung-fu, apart from Chinese language classes,” Rajan Hande, who heads international collaborations at the varsity, said.

Manipal University has also signed a memorandum of agreement with Hanban to host a Confucius Institute, officials aware of the agreement said. “There are many other Indian institutions that want to tie up and start Confucius Institutes,” a Chinese official said. “There’s a huge demand.”

But any Confucius Institute in India will have to be set up as a collaborative effort between an Indian university and a Chinese counterpart, with the Chinese government playing no direct role in the project, the ministry of external affairs has indicated to China.

Although Chinese universities such as Tianjin University that has tied up with Mumbai University are state-funded, the differentiation is important because it is easier for the Indian government to ask a varsity to sever ties with a Chinese counterpart than with the government. “It keeps India’s options open,” an official said.

The Chinese teachers and coaches coming to India will also receive only regular work visas, not diplomatic documents normally given to representatives of a foreign government, New Delhi has told Beijing.

India has not given any assurance of either an extension to these work visas when they expire or that it will award fresh visas to a new set of arriving teachers.

“There’s been an opening from India,” the Chinese official said. “But we’ll need to see if it lasts.”