Reading Marshall Sahlin’s devastating critique of the Confucius Institutes which the Chinese government has been hard at work setting up since 2004, it is easy to get annoyed by the meekness of their Western directors. “No,” they insist, “the Confucius Institute is not the appropriate place to discuss independence for Tibet.” The fact that these institutions are located at university campuses and integrated with on-going teaching and research, makes the meekness into something close to a crime. Universities outside of China cannot let the Chinese government have a say on how China should be discussed!
The irony is that in China itself there is often space to talk about these kinds of issues, at least in a university setting. The country’s dictatorship is more influenced by Groucho than by Karl Marx. I used to teach a course at Shanghai Jiaotong University which had one week on independence for Taiwan and Tibet and another week on human rights. I used to ask my students if they ever thought Ma Yingjiu, the president of Taiwan, would become president of all of China? That is, when will China come to have the kinds of competitive elections in which the leader of the KMT could win? “No,” said my students after some thought, “Ma is 64 years old, and he’ll be too old once we have free elections.”
And yet none of this was a surprise to my students. I didn’t tell them anything about democracy or human rights — or about China for that matter — that they didn’t already know. No one is fooled by the rhetoric and everyone is completely cynical. Mind you, my students were all members of the