Critics of China have reacted angrily to the cancellation of events to mark the publication of a new German book on President Xi Jinping, apparently at the behest of Chinese diplomats.
Confucius Institutes at two German universities he had planned online presentations of the book, Xi Jinping: the most powerful man in the world by Adrian Geiges, longtime China correspondent for Stern magazine, and Stefan Aust, former editor-in-chief of news magazine Der Spiegel.
But the book’s publisher, Piper Verlag, said the events had been “canceled on short notice, due to Chinese pressure.” The company said that the Chinese consul in Düsseldorf, Feng Haiyang, allegedly personally intervened to eliminate one of the events, which was to be held at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
Piper Verlag quoted an employee of the Confucius Institute as saying that “you can no longer talk about Xi Jinping like a normal person, you should not touch or talk about him.”
The controversy has refocused attention on the role of the Confucius Institute, an organization run by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education that offers language and cultural programs abroad.
China sees the organization as a way to promote the learning of Chinese language and culture, as well as provide educational and cultural exchanges with the aim of “deepening mutual understanding and friendship” between China and other countries.
But critics see the institution as a way for Beijing to spread propaganda under the guise of teaching, interfere with free speech on campuses and even spy on students.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament and an outspoken critic of China, described the decision to cancel events related to the book as “outrageous.” “Chinese bureaucrats [allegedly behind the move] they have effectively demonstrated why it is incumbent upon us to control and get rid of these Confucius Institutes, ”he said.
Thorsten Benner, Director of the Institute for Global Public Policy in Berlin, said: “This episode should make it clear to all the rectors of German universities that Confucius Institutes should not take place in German universities or in any other academic institution committed to academic freedom “. He added that “they are a huge risk to the reputation of the German universities that partner with them.”
In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Germany said that the events at the Confucius Institutes “should serve the common interests and concerns of both parties and should be planned and carried out on the basis of comprehensive communication between the partners.”
He added that China wanted to turn the institutes into a “platform to better understand China and get to know it objectively and completely.” “But we strongly oppose any politicization of academic and cultural exchange,” he continued.
Felicitas von Lovenberg, director of Piper Verlag, described the cancellation of the book’s events as a “disturbing sign.”
Aust said the situation confirmed the basic thesis of his book and that of Geiges. “Not only is a dictatorship trying to surpass the West in economic terms, it is also trying to promote its values internationally, values that point against our freedom,” he said.
The events were supposed to take place this week at the Confucius Institute at Duisburg-Essen University and the Leibniz-Confucius Institute in Hannover. Piper Verlag said the presentation in Duisburg-Essen had been canceled after Wuhan University and the Chinese consul in Düsseldorf allegedly intervened.
In Hannover, it was Tongji University in Shanghai, which jointly operates the Confucius Institute there, that canceled the event, according to Piper Verlag.
Hannover Leibniz University said in a statement that the cancellation of the event was “unacceptable, disconcerting and incomprehensible.”
“The Leibniz University of Hannover sees itself as a cosmopolitan university with space for exchange and critical scientific discourse,” he said. He added that he had invited Aust and Geiges to give a reading from his book at the university.
In a statement Tuesday, the University of Duisburg-Essen said it “was not involved in either the planning or the cancellation of the book launch.” “This decision is inexplicable to us and should not be repeated,” said the university’s rector, Ulrich Radtke.