Intensified educational links strengthen ties with China

Cultural and education exchanges offer many opportunities for the EU and China, but they must reflect the 'spirit of respect and equality', argues Helga Trüpel.

By Helga Trüpel

03 Oct 2014

In the last decade, the European Union has made China a priority of its international strategy. China's fast economic development and its growing importance in the global economy and politics put the country in the focus of the EU's interest. Differently to the US, though, Europe has intensified its educational links with China relatively recently.

In the past few years, cooperation has been particularly increased in the field of higher education and research. However, culture, multilingualism and youth have also been topics of the sector focused policy dialogues and I welcome this development. As a vice-chair of parliament's culture and education committee, and a member of the China delegation, I am a strong advocate of educational and cultural ties, especially among young people. Cultural and educational exchanges are not only key tools for building trust and understanding between people, but essential for opening minds, building bridges and for fostering mutual understanding.

"Cultural and educational exchanges are not only key tools for building trust and understanding between people, but essential for opening minds, building bridges and for fostering mutual understanding"

The Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation is playing an increasingly important role in the framework of the high-level people to people dialogue. Already during the previous framework programme, China had become one of the EU's most important partners in research and innovation. Erasmus+, the European Union`s new educational programme, includes the Erasmus mundus programme, which has attracted thousands of Chinese students since 2004 enabling them to take part in joint master courses and doctorates.

In the framework of the cultural dialogue China, the European Union national institutes for culture, supported by the European culture programme Creative Europe, provides a platform for intellectuals, young creatives and policy makers from Europe and China to strengthen cultural cooperation within the creative industries and to foster people-to-people relations.

These programmes are opening up opportunities for young Europeans and Chinese, students, researchers and artists while overcoming obstacles to mobility. Cultural and educational exchange is also a soft-power instrument of the EU's external policy strategy. For me, however, it is essential that cultural relations take place in a spirit of respect and equality. The stances of reciprocity and mutuality embody these fundamental values and should therefore underpin the entire approach of the EU and its member states. No side should enter the exchange with a feeling of superiority, arrogance or an attitude of teaching the other side of what is right or wrong.

However, most Europeans today are critically aware of the legacy of the shared European history and the lessons we draw from it. It is a historic achievement of this history that human rights, and the division of power and freedom of speech, are cherished European values, which should never be compromised. Respect and equality do hence come to a limit when universal human rights are being violated. Cultural and educational exchange should not ignore the repeating breaches of basic human rights by the Chinese authorities, but should have the courage to tackle these fundamental differences.

"Stronger ties in education and culture between Europe and China at eye level and on the basis of mutual respect are indispensable"

China itself has understood the importance of cultural and educational exchange as a part of foreign policy and has pushed for the worldwide expansion of the Chinese Confucius institute, which today has offices in 122 countries. In comparison to the German Goethe institute or the Spanish Cervantes institute, the Chinese cultural institutes are far less independent bodies. Their headquarters, located in Beijing, are controlled by the "Chinese national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language" (Hanban) which is part of the ministry for education.

Besides this ministry though, the Hanban is also influenced by the propaganda ministry, which stands under the direct leadership of a member of the political office of the Communist party. China's Confucius institutes are mostly established in cooperation with European universities, which, in exchange for financial means, provide the infrastructures at the campus in order to promote Chinese language and culture.

More and more criticism arises on how the institutes attempt to influence the teaching of the faculties of sinology. The recent European sinology conference in Portugal is a scandalous example, during which Chinese officials removed pages of the conference program handbook which contained information of the cosponsor, a Taiwanese academic organisation. Such censorship and direct interference of Chinese officials are not acceptable.

It has to be made sure that the cooperation of the Confucius institutes with European higher-education is not turned into an instrument of outright propaganda of the Chinese Communist party. The growing presence of Chinese Confucius institutes underline the importance of strong, critical and academically independent faculties of sinology, whose work should not be undermined by drastic budget cuts which they have been facing in many EU-member states. Although the trends are increasing towards alternative sources of funding at universities, European higher education should remain independent.

Stronger ties in education and culture between Europe and China at eye level and on the basis of mutual respect are indispensable. Without trying to export European values wholesale to other regions, the exchange has to take place under the aegis of respecting universal human rights, which include freedom of expression.