Doubts about the integrity of Confucius Institutes lead to mounting criticism

What are the limits of the partnerships that a public institution of higher education may form? A growing number of critics, including university officials and faculty, argue that accepting funding and academic influence from the communist Chinese government crosses a line.

This month, a congressional hearing was held on the topic, “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by Chinese Influence on U.S. Universities?” In September, the University of Chicago and Penn State stepped back from their close relationships with China. And in June, the American Association of University Professors sounded an alarm about the impact of Chinese organizations.

At the core of this controversy is a project begun in 2004 by the Chinese government to fund on-campus centers promoting Chinese language and culture, and “deepening friendly relationships” with other countries. The centers, called Confucius Institutes, partner with existing departments, rather than functioning as academic departments.

While few object to colleges offering programs to study Chinese language and culture, there are mounting objections to the Confucius Institutes’ efforts to filter the flow of information.

Penn State and the University of Chicago are abandoning their agreements to host Confucius Institutes.

Chicago announced it was severing ties after a Chinese-language newspaper reported that the university had  been intimidated into maintaining ties with the Confucius Institute. More than 100 faculty members signed a petition last spring to close the institute on campus; it was closed by fall.

Penn State severed ties with the institute the following week, declaring that its goals were out of step with the university’s.

Critics accuse the Confucius Institute of being a propaganda arm of the Chinese government. In addition to fostering a better image of China, Confucius Institutes have pressured universities into keeping mum about Tibetan and Taiwanese freedom, as well as human rights abuses like Tiananmen Square, according to reports from numerous mainstream news outlets.

Despite this concern, the hubs continue to expand.

There are more than 400 of them in 120 countries, and 97 in the United States alone. There are also around 700 mini-Confucius Institutes known as Confucius Classrooms worldwide. The “classrooms” have the same mission as the institutes but rely on nearby institutes for funding and management.

North Carolina State University has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2007, and the institute operates Confucius Classrooms at Central Carolina Community College, Saint Augustine’s University, Enloe High School, and, since October, Wake Technical Community College.

UNC’s Center for International Understanding, which promotes international relations for all the UNC campuses, thinks the partnership helps students “hold a competitive advantage in an increasingly global world.” It notes that one-third of the world now speaks Chinese and that China is an important trading partner with North Carolina. The UNC center runs 43 Confucius Classrooms at North Carolina elementary, middle, and high schools.

Nationally, however, the controversy has caught the attention of the U.S. House subcommittee on international organizations, headed by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ, who convened a panel on December 4.

One panelist was Xia Yeliang, a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He was fired from his professorship at Peking University after he spoke out against socialism and the ruling Communist Party.

Xia testified at the hearing that while he was a visiting scholar at Stanford, the campus Confucius Institute canceled his speech on China’s economy. The institute was unhappy about a previous speech sponsored by the institute in which he discussed constitutional issues in China.

Another panelist, Wellesley College professor Thomas Cushman (who led a protest against Xia’s firing from Peking University and against Wellesley’s partnership with the university) testified that the partnerships between the Chinese government and U.S. universities “work to achieve the propaganda goals of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” He cited a January 2010 speech by Chinese propaganda minister Liu Yunshan as promoting “international propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Human Rights, and Falun Gong.” (The January 2010 speech has since been made inaccessible at a government website.)

Cushman argued that even if China does not directly interfere with academic freedom at U.S. partner universities, “Scholars of China may self-censor and avoid public criticism of aspects of China for fear of losing access to China.”

NC State illustrates the danger Confucius Institutes pose to academic freedom. In 2009, the university had invited the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to speak on campus. NC State’s Confucius Institute director Bailian Li reportedly interfered. According to a 2011 Bloomberg article, Li warned Provost Warwick Arden that the speech would dampen “some of the strong relationships we were developing with China.” The speech was canceled.

Li told the Pope Center in an email that “the CI or I have nothing to do with the Dalai Lama’s visit as clearly stated in that article. That was the Chancellor and Provost’s decision (way above our levels), and we didn’t even know until much later.”

Arden’s communications director did not return a call requesting comment.

Jeffery Braden, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at NC State, said in an interview with the Pope Center that he has not heard any direct complaints about the Confucius Institutes, although some professors have voiced concerns. The college has an informal working relationship with the campus Confucius Institute.

Braden said that those concerns apply to other outside groups equally, however. “The same faculty who want to ensure the CI does not unduly exert influence on our campus also share the same concerns about the Pope [Foundation]” or other nonprofits—or companies like LexisNexis and Eastman Chemical Company, both of which have partnerships with the campus, he said.

Braden said that NC State’s agreements with both the Confucius Institute and the Pope Foundation, a grant-giving nonprofit foundation that funds the Pope Center, require that any funding “advances, but does not compromise, the core mission of our campus and college.”

But is there a difference between accepting funds from private donors who are open about their goals and respectful of academic freedom and a foreign national government that has shown open disdain for academic freedom and committed documented human rights abuses?

Braden conceded that association with China’s ruling party presented a moral dilemma, but argued that isolation is not the answer.

“Do we deal with governments that don’t share our values? There are two strategies—you can isolate or you can engage,” Braden said. “Our country has benefited tremendously from informal engagement,” he added.

During his testimony at the Dec. 4 congressional hearing, Professor Cushman laid out three policy recommendations: First, the federal government should audit all colleges that receive federal funds to examine their relationships with Chinese institutions. This would presumably include not just Confucius Institutes, but satellite campuses in China, such as Duke Kunshan University, Duke University’s partnership with Wuhan University.

Second, colleges must declare any possible conflicts of interest.

Third, colleges should take steps to ensure academic freedom in the course of partnering with the Chinese government.

Cushman’s recommendations would reduce violations of freedom by the Confucius Institutes. But they assume that universities continue to sponsor the institutes.

Currently, the UNC board of governors is reviewing 11 percent of state-funded centers and institutes for potential cuts, primarily for efficiency but also to stop excessive advocacy and politicization. The Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute is not under review, nor is the UNC’s Center for International Understanding. Perhaps they should be.

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