• foreign affairs at the rug

    Subtle propaganda

    There are places at the RUG where you may think that you’re no longer in Groningen but suddenly in Russia or South Korea instead. What is all the international propaganda good for?
    in short

    Russia, South Korea and China have their own reserved spaces in the UB and on campus to promote their language and culture.

    The Netherlands also promotes itself abroad, as do most other countries.

    ‘If there is financing for setting up such a thing and it’s in the interest of the University or the library, then we are willing to take that into consideration.’

    The main reason for the criticism is how they’re financed directly through their national governments.

    Universities warn of these institutes exerting ‘soft power’ and are concerned about threats to academic freedom.

    In the United States, even the FBI got involved. They warned that ‘foreign opponents and competitors want to take advantage of the openness’ of American society.

    The directors of the institutes insist that they do not permit themselves to be influenced.


    full version

    Reading time: 10 minutes (2,267 words)

    A French flag in front of the Harmonie complex. A Korean reading corner in the University Library. Beside that, the Russia Centre. The RUG is happy to ally itself with the rest of the world; it’s good for making contacts, and the University gives these nations a place to promote themselves here. But internationally, there is criticism. What effect does an international institute have on a university, and should a school want to lend foreign nations such an opportunity for self-promotion?

    The Netherlands sees it as important to present itself abroad. That’s why there’s an Erasmus House in Jakarta and the Dutch-Netherlands House in Brussels. Previously, there was also a Dutch institute in France, but it closed last year. In fifteen other countries, the Netherlands has cultural branches within their embassies.

    One of those countries is China. At Fudan University, for example, you can be a student of Dutch Studies. In Osaka, there’s a Dutch Studies Centre. These universities have a working relationship with the RUG, and head of the Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen, Tjalling Halbertsma, says that’s something to be proud of. ‘We should be glad that these kinds of universities have chosen to combine their efforts with Groningen’, he says.


    The collaboration works both ways. Not only does The Netherlands have a presence abroad, but those countries also come here. One example of that is the recently opened Korea Corner. It’s no institute, but instead ‘a reading corner that serves as a billboard for Korea’, according to Halbertsma.

    Thanks to a generous donation from the South Korean embassy – valued at 37,000 euros – the Centre for East Asian Studies arranged a spot in the UB. ‘It brings us to Asia and makes it possible for Asia to achieve more in Groningen’, Halbertsma says.

    Centre for the city

    Other countries are going bigger. A few feet away from the Korea Corner, we find the Centre for Russian Studies, a large space filled with Russian books and images on the wall. Tanya Mironava is there, seated behind the desk.

    ‘We also
    cook together

    She talks about the language courses that the Russia Centre offers, the books that are there to be read and the conferences that they organise. But according to Mironava, the centre in the UB is more than a university facility.
    ‘In particular, it’s a centre for the city. You see that the Russian community comes together here. I help people here by giving advice about Russia and helping them find information. We also cook together often’, she says.

    Make a connection

    But how did these centres end up in the UB? ‘They are places where students can find specific information about certain countries’, RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens explains. ‘They are a part of the UB and fit into the collection and the role that the library has.’ The director of the UB, Marjolein Nieboer, concurs: ‘If there is financing for setting up such a thing and it’s in the interest of the University or the library, then we are willing to take that into consideration. The decision making lies with the Board of Directors.’

    Hans van Koningsbrugge, director of the Russia Centre, sees it as important to provide space for the institute in the UB. He considers it a place to make a connection. ‘It is a part of the RUG,’ he says. ‘The University has a lot of important links with Russia, and that’s why we thought it would be good to set up a centre five years ago. People who are interested in Russia could come together here, and that seemed like a good thing to have in the UB.’

    Cultural diplomacy

    The fact that the University pursues these connections isn’t so strange. The RUG also offers similar space for countries like France, for example. However, unlike France, Russia and China score extremely low in the press freedom rankings by Reporters without Border. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression don’t seem to be held to very high standards. That’s why criticism has been growing internationally about these institutes who have a place within a university.

    Researchers and politicians are also already talking about ‘cultural diplomacy’. Foreign institutes come to the Netherlands to offer language classes and promote their own culture in an effort to make people more aware of their country.

    The number of institutes is growing, too. Russia has 42 cultural centres globally, all of which opened in the past five years. China is going even bigger: in a brief ten years, the Confucius Institute has set up around 500 branches. The Groningen office opened in 2010.


    The main reason for the criticism is not how many institutes there are, but how they’re financed.

    ‘Seduction is always more effective than coercion’

    For example, the Russia Centre got a serious boost from ‘Russkiy Mir’ – Russian world – an organisation that was founded in 2007 as an initiative of President Vladimir Putin. Russkiy Mir is funded through the government to promote Russian language and culture. The organisation collaborates with the Russian Orthodox Church.

    In the United States, it was the Confucius Institute that really caused a fuss. That institute receives money from Hanban, an organisation that develops Chinese language and cultural classes globally. Hanban is officially a non-governmental and non-profit organisation, but it’s actually connected to the Chinese Ministry of Education. In June 2014, the Groningen Confucius Institute received another 365,000 euros to fund the centre for the next five years.

    Soft power

    That’s exactly what some universities couldn’t accept. They fear the ‘soft power’: seducing someone into doing what the seducer wants. Joseph Nye from Harvard University invented the term. ‘The best propaganda is no propaganda’, he says.

    In his book ‘Soft power’, Nye writes: ‘Seduction is always more effective than coercion. Many values like democracy, human rights and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.’ In his eyes, an institute like that may not be politically motivated, but it can contribute to a more positive image of a country. And that can amount to cultural propaganda.

    One example that American universities cite is extending an invitation to the Dalai Lama. In 2009, he was supposed to visit North Carolina State University, but his speech was cancelled. The Confucius Institute there was too touchy about it.

    In June of 2014, the American Association of University Professors published a statement: North American universities were allowing Confucius Institutes to push a national agenda in the recruitment and observation of academic staff. They referred to it as a ‘restriction of debate’: a threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression. The association called for an end to collaborating with the institutes.

    At the University of Chicago, professors submitted a petition against their local Confucius Institute. Historian Bruce Cumings warned: ‘American universities should not be taking money or institute funds from governments that are jailing professors and that do not provide academic freedom in their own country.’


    Two American universities – the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University – decided to end their partnerships with the Chinese institute. Several centres were also closed in Canada and France.

    In the United States, even the FBI got involved. The bureau cautioned that ‘foreign opponents and competitors want to take advantage of the openness’ of American society. They warned that the public academic life in the United States could be abused to steal, recruit spies or circumvent valuable research and developments.

    The American allegations weren’t plucked out of thin air, but the Dutch bureau of investigation – the General Intelligence and Security Service – responded more coolly. ‘It is not our task to investigate organisations that are connected to a university’, says a spokesperson. As far as she knows, the universities are also, therefore, not warned against working with the them.

    ‘Not influenced’

    That does not alter the fact that developments abroad cast a different light on the institutes that are connected to the RUG. How does that work in Groningen? The Confucius Institute in the city works together with the municipality, the Hanzehogeschool and the RUG. ‘We have three pillars’, according to director Xuefei Knoester-Cao.

    ‘No one should get it into their head that they can influence us in any way’

    ‘We bring Chinese language, culture and industry to Groningen’, she says. ‘We help northern businesses to work together with Chinese companies – we provide a link. For students who are interested, we offer a master’s programme together with the RUG.’

    She is aware of the criticism of her institute. ‘Yes, we receive a financial contribution from the Chinese government, but what matters is how you set up your institute’, Knoester-Cao says. She is Chinese herself, but she has worked for the university for years. ‘The entire board is here in Groningen. We have lecturers from China, but they don’t give classes anymore. We don’t permit ourselves to be influenced by the Chinese government. I understand the problem – you should remain aware of that possibility – but that is not what happens here’, the director emphasises.


    Van Koningsbrugge of the Russia Centre is also conscious of the soft power allegations. He says he understands where the criticism comes from. ‘But from the very beginning when the institute was first being set up, I have said that I am not willing to be influenced’, Van Koningsbrugge says, heatedly. ‘Russia may help financially in setting it up, and that’s fine, but that is where I have drawn the line. No one should get it into their head that they can influence us in any way. You would not be welcome here if you tried.’ And then, with a laugh, he says, ‘I don’t think there is anything that I could be pressured about.’
    According to the director, nothing is taboo at the Russia Centre and anyone can discuss anything there: ‘Ukraine, for example. It may be a sensitive issue, but you have to be able to talk about it, even within an institute like this.’

    Everybody uses soft power

    China, Korea and Russia aren’t the only ones who spread their language and culture as a way to improve their image abroad. Basically every country uses soft power.
    China love public diplomacy. The Chinese promote their country 24 hours a day on the English-language news channel CNC World, but there are also Confucius Institutes all over the world. Globally, there are 465, including two in the Netherlands: in Groningen and Leiden. The country wrestles with its own reputation and tries to promote a more positive image through the institutes. The Confucius Institutes are connected to foreign universities that are happy to have the free institute.

    The British Council has more than 200 branches in 100 countries. The first office opened in 1934. The organisation is largely paid for with income from language classes, exams, contracts and other collaborations. The rest of the money (roughly 20 per cent) comes from the British government.

    The main branch of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes has two locations: Madrid and Alcala de Henares. But the centre, focused on Spanish-taught education and disseminating the culture, has branches on every continent. The institute has 78 branches in 45 countries.

    The Netherlands only has two cultural institutes. The Institut Néerlandais in Paris was closed because minister Timmermans felt it was too expensive. The remaining two are the Erasmus House in Jakarta and the Flemish-Dutch Huis deBuren in Brussels. Embassies in fifteen countries, including China and the United States, have cultural branches.

    Finland has fifteen institutes, including locations in Copenhagen, London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Tokyo. The country significantly increased the number of institutes in the ‘90s.
    France has 102 institutes in 98 countries and 1,040 branches of the Alliance Française in 136 countries. Those branches typically don’t have their own property and are often housed within the embassies. The institutes receive money directly from Paris.

    Germany has 144 institutes in 80 countries, including branches in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The most recent additions have been in Africa. In 2007, Germany increased its budget for, among other things, the cultural programme ‘Aktion Afrika’.

    Russkiy Mir has 84 institutes and cultural centres worldwide. Most of their branches are located in Ukraine and China. The centres arose over a relatively short period – Russkiy Mir has only existed for eight years. The Russians also have two promotional ships.

    The United States doesn’t have institutes, but they do have information centres in embassies and American Corners at libraries and universities with information and cultural offerings. The corners are paid for by the American embassies. There are around 400 of them, spread across 60 countries.