Efforts by Chinese diplomats to stop cultural events deemed critical of the government in Beijing have met with mixed results in Europe, succeeding in Germany but being rebuffed by a city government in Italy.
The incident in Germany concerned a new book, Xi Jinping — The Most Powerful Man in the World, by two veteran German journalists, Stern magazine’s China correspondent Adrian Geiges, and Die Welt newspaper publisher Stefan Aust.
Confucius Institutes at two German universities had planned online events on Oct. 27 to coordinate with the book’s launch. But the book’s publisher, Piper Verlag of Munich, said the events were canceled at short notice “due to Chinese pressure.”
The company accused Feng Haiyang, the Chinese consul general in Düsseldorf, of intervening personally to quash the event at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Duisburg and Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
At Leibniz University in Hannover, the Tongji University in Shanghai — which jointly operates the Confucius Institute there — forced the cancellation of an event, according to the company. Neither the publisher nor the institute offered details on what triggered the cancellation.
The institutes, run by China’s education ministry, are seen by Beijing as a way to promote its culture. Many Western countries have become wary of the influence the institutes exert on campuses by subsidizing classes, travel and research.
Dozens of Confucius Institutes have been closed or are closing in Europe and Australia. At least 29 shuttered in the U.S. after the State Department in August 2020 designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese government.
In a statement, Piper Verlag quoted a Confucius Institute employee as saying that “One can no longer talk about Xi Jinping as a normal person, he should now be untouchable and unspeakable.”
Felicitas von Lovenberg, head of Piper Verlag, called the cancellation of the events “a worrying and disturbing signal.”
Aust of Die Welt said the incident confirmed the book’s basic thesis: “For the first time, a dictatorship is in the process of overtaking the West economically, and is now also trying to impose its values, which are against our freedom, internationally.”
The book presented China in a very differentiated way as it also talked about China’s success in overcoming poverty, co-author Geiges said. “Apparently, such balanced reports are no longer enough for Xi Jinping. Stories are no longer enough — he now wants a cult around his person internationally, just as he does in China itself.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Berlin said events at Confucius Institutes were planned to bring about better understanding between the two peoples, and they “should build on the basis of comprehensive communications between the partners.”
China supports the development of the institutes as “a platform to understand China comprehensively and objectively,” the embassy spokesperson added. “But we strongly object to any politicization of academic and cultural exchange.”
Both Confucius Institutes said in their respective statements that there were different views between the German and Chinese partners, making it impossible to carry on. The Institute for East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen had expressed interest in hosting the event, according to the university’s Confucius Institute.
German human rights activist David Missal told VOA Cantonese there has always been pressure from the Chinese side when it comes to critical events, but the tactics were rarely exposed. He took it as a positive development that these incidents are coming to light.
“I think this is the only way to fight this kind of influence in a democracy — you have to make these things public, make them transparent, and then there will be political responses to these incidents,” Missal said.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament who is critical of China, said the next German federal government must draw clear lines about its China policy. “Chinese censorship at German universities? Does not work at all. These so-called ‘Confucius’ institutes, which are in fact CCP aides, have no future,” he tweeted.
Earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Rome attempted to stop a critical art show, but failed.
A museum in Brescia, an Italian city about 100 kilometers east of Milan, will continue with its plans to open a solo exhibition of the work of Australia-based Chinese exiled activist Badiucao. Scheduled to run from Nov. 13-Feb. 13, the exhibition is entitled “China is [not] near.” It will feature the artist’s work criticizing issues such as China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The Chinese Embassy in Rome sent the Brescia city council a message on Oct. 21, contending that Badiucao’s works twisted facts, spread false information, would mislead the Italian people’s understanding of China while seriously damaging Chinese people’s feelings, and jeopardize friendly relations between China and Italy, according to Italy’s ANSA news agency.
Brescia Mayor Emilio Del Bono told the Il Foglio newspaper the show will not be canceled, adding, “I think it is important to show that you can stay friends while criticizing some things.”
Badiucao told VOA Mandarin via phone on live TV that he was not surprised by the embassy’s position. “I am very excited that the city government and the museum stood strongly with me. I can say very confidently that my exhibition will not be canceled. I will not amend my exhibits or commit any self-censorship.”
VOA Cantonese asked the Chinese Embassy in Rome for comments but received no response.
This story originated in VOA’s Cantonese Service.