The BBC's Shanghai correspondent, John Sudworth, has interviewed Xu Lin, the head of Hanban which is the state ministry responsible for China's Confucius Institutes. An edited version of the interview can be viewed here Interview with Xu Lin.
This is an extraordinary interview on many levels, not least Ms Xu's response to questions about her blatant interference in an academic conference earlier this year. I wrote a post about this incident as one of several 'public diplomacy faux pas', accessible here When to say nothing.
What is most surprising in this interview is not what she said in defence of the Confucius Institutes. Like any government minister across the world, Ms Xu is required to provide an official response to critical questions. Rather, most alarming is her logic: John Sudworth has no right to ask questions about Taiwan because it is a Chinese issue and only the Chinese can address it. This was an entirely inappropriate answer to the question of why she had ripped promotional material about the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation from the programme of an academic conference. It makes no sense in the context of the interview and undermines the more positive tone of her answers to other questions. It also provides the framing for the interview and means that any review will focus on the more dramatic and confrontational portion of the interview, rather than the substance. John Sudworth's decision to post online Ms Xin's request for him to to edit out altogether the question about the conference in Portugal and his refusal to do so means that this and not the cultural diplomacy of the Confucius Institutes become the story. Thus Xu Lin revealed that the Chinese government has much to learn about how the media work, and any claims of communication professionalism among government officials are premature. The interview was yet another public diplomacy faux pas.
Moreover, Ms Xu resorted to complaining she had not been given in advance any question about the conference in Portugal and therefore refused to answer. This was her chance to explain and, dare we say, even apologise for her violation of academic freedom earlier this year. Any critic seeking evidence of how Confucius Institutes are not simply agents of cultural diplomacy and language teaching will find it here: Xu Lin not only refused to answer difficult questions, she also politicised the Confucius Institutes and reinforced the idea that they are led by dogmatists.
Just as we are assured that China's government communications machinery is becoming more professional, more sensitive to the demands of the modern media age, Xu Lin's interview tells a different story. It does little to reassure viewers that Confucius Institutes are not required to pursue a political agenda decided in Beijing. The interview is a crowning end to a year in which Chinese public diplomacy has taken one step forward and two steps back.