The Debate Over Confucius Institutes in the United States

A ChinaFile conversation on the promises and perils of partnering with Beijing on education. 

Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Over the last decade, Beijing has sponsored at least 70 Confucius Institutes (CI) in the United States — Chinese state-run instutions which partner with American institutions to provide Chinese language and culture study to U.S. students. But some suspect that CI, with their state-dictated taboo on sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen, infringe upon academic freedom at U.S. universities. In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss whether or not these fears are justified, why universities continue to host Confucius Institutes, and what steps can be taken to guarantee academic freedom at American schools.

Stephen I. Levine, retired professor of Chinese politics and history:

As part of the Tiananmen Initiative Project I launched last fall to encourage commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, I wrote to over 200 CI directors: 

On behalf of an international group of China scholars and others, I am writing to ask that your Confucius Institute mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of liu si [Chinese shorthand for the Tiananmen Square crackdown] with a public event such as a lecture, a teach-in, a roundtable discussion or the like that addresses the relevant historical and contemporary issues. In The Analects (2:24) Confucius himself said, “Not to act when justice commands, that is cowardice.” We appeal to your conscience and sense of justice to act with courage.

With the exception of one positive message, the lack of any other response suggests that expediency and cowardice rather than conscience and justice are the hallmarks of the CIs — not surprising in view of their provenance and the role they play in China’s cultural diplomacy.

A confession: In 2007, without having given the matter sufficient thought, I myself, then an associate director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, shared responsibility for a successful application to the Hanban, the organization that partners with China’s Ministry of Education to oversee CIs, to establish a CI at my university, a typically underfunded state university with a woefully inadequate Asian studies program. Our institutional poverty rather than our greed motivated us. We pledged to ourselves to brook no interference from Beijing in what we did. As far as I am aware, there has been none except, of course, in terms of the recruitment criteria for teachers in China itself that preclude any who would function as anything other than mouthpieces of the Chinese state.

What I failed to consider at the time, though I should have known better, was what might be called the side effects of the seemingly benign CI medicine that Beijing prescribed for the financial-deficiency disease from which my institution suffered. Of course, as others have noted, there is the inherent danger of self-censorship, which may even operate at a conscious level. Just as important is that the CIs function to conceal the ugly features of a repressive regime whose relentless depredations against its own people as well as its increasingly truculent international behavior require no recitation to readers of this website.

Chinese culture and language are undoubtedly magnificent contributions to world culture. Yet there are surely other ways than accepting handouts from Beijing to bring them to our students and our fellow citizens. Russia, too, has a great culture and language. Yet would we have blithely accepted Pushkin Institutes on our campuses funded by the murderous Stalinist autocracy? King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty was a great figure in Korean history and culture. Would we accept King Sejong Institutes on our campuses funded by the tyrannical regime in Pyongyang?

There are better ways to partake of China’s cultural heritage than to sacrifice our integrity.

Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet:

First, any increase in the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in schools is a positive. And we all benefit from greater understanding of Chinese culture and history (as long as the bad is taught with the good).

The questions for our schools and our society are whether Confucius Institutes are the only vehicle available to achieve these goals and whether the price a school pays to accept a CI is too high.

The anecdotal evidence suggests that there can be a negative effect on free and open academic discourse, as evidenced by the recent statement by the American Association of University Professors. CIs may overtly suppress discussion of topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese communist government, such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. For instance, the contract of a Toronto college instructor barred her from discussing the Falun Gong (a spiritual movement that Chinese authorities have banned and designated an "evil cult"]. CIs may exert undue influence on university decisions: In 2009, North Carolina State University disinvited the Dalai Lama after the school’s CI complained. The presence of CIs may result in self-censorship by the school.

In our own investigation, the International Campaign for Tibet (while not identifying our Tibet connection) in 2011 requested resource materials on Tibet from a Confucius Institute at a university in the Washington, D.C., region. Instead of scholarly materials published by credible American authors (not to speak of Tibetan writers), what we received were books and DVDs giving the Chinese narrative on Tibet published by China Intercontinental Press, which is described by a Chinese government-run website as operating "under the authority of the State Council Information Office … whose main function is to produce propaganda products."

Academic freedom is a cherished value in democratic and scientifically productive societies. Given the stakes involved, investigation into the effect of CIs on such freedom is warranted.

Robert Kapp and Jeffrey Wasserstrom [in their original ChinaFile entries, here] are right on the need for requirements on CI operations. They should be clear and uniform across the United States. The associations representing the university presidents and university professors, with relevant stakeholder input from other academic, policy, and advocacy communities, should collaborate to create CI standards.

But because universities are self-interested entities that have made themselves financially dependent on CIs, it is appropriate to apply the oversight lever of Congress. Relevant committees should investigate whether the terms of CIs’ agreements with universities result in reduced academic discourse and freedom of speech on topics such as Tibet and whether such agreements or practices violate any laws in relation to publicly funded universities.

But the problem with CIs cannot be remedied by transparency and good governance. No democratic country can ignore their insidiousness, active or potential. CIs should respect the universal value of freedom of expression. If universities instead degrade these values to suit the CI, then universities should be forced to find another way to teach Chinese language and culture.

Michael Hill, Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature, and Director of the Center for Asian Studies and the Program in Chinese at the University of South Carolina:

Anyone with experience teaching critical languages like Chinese, Arabic, or Russian at the college level has seen what we might call a "low-equilibrium trap," a situation where a language program has just enough staff to run a small number of courses, but never gets enough resources to expand. One, maybe two overburdened tenure-track faculty members and instructors keep the program afloat, but not much more. In my experience, a Confucius Institute partnership can help Chinese programs avoid that trap.

The CI at the University of South Carolina opened in 2008; our partner institution is Beijing Language and Culture University. Without the CI, I don’t see how we could offer our current array of courses. Moreover, there’s no question in my mind that our students have benefited from working with experienced instructors from our partner school.

I have not seen any attempt by the CI to interfere politically at the university. I am sensitive to these issues, in part because I spent a large part of my language training in Taiwan and continue to engage with the scholarly community there.

The issues that have arisen are largely administrative and easily anticipated. Teachers with little experience working in a U.S. university need time to adjust to a different classroom style and to a different type of student. For example, often our CI colleagues are accustomed to teaching students who are enrolled full time in a Chinese-language program. These students are very different from Carolina undergraduates who take three to four hours of Chinese per week along with their other classes. Each group of students has a different set of needs, and their academic progress must be evaluated by different standards. It is up to the regular tenured and tenure-track faculty to facilitate that process and make sure our students get the best experience that we can offer them.

Looking ahead, I do worry that some universities will begin to use their CIs as a replacement for a regular language program, effectively outsourcing their teaching responsibilities to Hanban. It’s a strong temptation, given how little outside funding exists for the humanities.

Until a better alternative arises, however, CIs are probably here to stay in the United States, because without them, many public colleges and universities will not be able to expand their Chinese programs. We all would welcome other sources of support, of course. Restructuring and expanding Title VI funding to help more universities might be a good place to start.

Finally, we should not see these issues as unique to Chinese. Funding for the study of Arabic, for example, can raise just as many problems. If colleges rejected all funds tied to regimes with questionable records on human rights and refused to participate in programs that are directly tied to U.S. national security, students would have precious few opportunities to study that language. A broader perspective might also help us think through these issues.

(These views are my own, not my employer’s.)

Zha Daojiong, Senior Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S. China Relations at the Asia Society, is a Professor of International Political Economy at Peking University:

The ongoing controversy over Confucius Institutes in the United States is a cause for some concern. Without having had direct exposure to CI operations either here in Beijing or overseas, I offer a few general remarks.

When foreign language/culture institutions came to China after the early 1970s, universities were the natural hosts. Many of those foreign institutions had nationals from their host countries as directors, some of whom had held government posts before moving to China. There certainly was a long and sometimes troublesome process of mutual accommodation. The net result, however, is that generation after generation of Chinese and Western professionals have benefited from the scholars’ continued efforts at engagement. There continues to be a demand for such exchange in today’s world economy.

The seeming campaign to drive CIs out of university campuses, against the backdrop of an ongoing mood of geopolitical uncertainties, might cause a tit-for-tat response from China. Let’s hope not. If it did, that would be most unfortunate. Exchanges in education and science between China and the West positively contributed to the lessening of political and diplomatic tensions between China and most Western countries in the last decades of the Cold War. It would indeed be a net loss for all if educational initiatives, such as language teaching and cultural exchange, fell victim to the current mood of geopolitics.

Were the headquarters of CIs incorporated as a not-for-profit entity in the Chinese educational system, rather than a component of the Ministry of Education, foreign suspicions of state interference might have been less tense. Regardless, Hanban or not, China is just still very, very short of individuals capable of navigating the social and political landscapes of Western educational institutions. It would to be interesting to have a sense of the percentage of CIs that have a difficult relationship with the institutions where they park.

It may still be worthwhile for CIs in the West to consider 1) changing their legal status within China, 2) renaming themselves, and 3) establishing as independent and not-for-profit institutions. Would a Pinyin name like "Zhongwen" (and no affix) help? Some may still pick it apart to say that "Zhong" could be associated with a "Middle Kingdom" claim of territoriality. Well, there are also those in Chinese society who would define a Western educational institution in China as a Trojan horse of sorts. Life, in China or the West, cannot be perfect. At the end of the day, it takes sensible political judgment.

Stephen E. Hanson, Vice Provost for International Affairs, Director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies, and Lettie Pate Evans Professor in the Department of Government at the College of William & Mary:

The statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) calling on all universities hosting Confucius Institutes to consider closing them immediately appears to be based on a misunderstanding of several important elements of how such programs run in practice. As a faculty member and administrator who has been involved in the founding and operation of two separate CIs — the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington and the William & Mary Confucius Institute — I am in a good position to comment on the recent controversy. The AAUP sets out three prerequisites for ensuring that CIs are not impinging in any way on academic freedom on U.S. campuses. I will endeavor to show that these three seemingly clear-cut conditions are more complex than AAUP appears to realize and that satisfying them all would call into question a wide range of common university programs with international partners.

First, AAUP insists that though there is no concrete evidence of any CI actually engaging in on-campus censorship of China-related programming, the mere fact that Hanban is a Chinese state agency means that recipients of its funding will engage in various forms of "self-censorship" in order to stay on the good side of its leadership. In my own case, I can state unequivocally that I have not experienced any such difficulty. Indeed, when William & Mary student organizations invited the Dalai Lama to speak on our campus in October 2013 — just six months after the opening of the William & Mary Confucius Institute — the Hanban leadership understood the situation and continued to support our CI at the same level as before. Much of the commentary in this controversy fails to take into account that CIs are just one aspect of any university’s wider programs on China, East Asia, and international affairs. Lectures and conferences on such subjects as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the status of Tibet and Taiwan, or the legitimacy of groups such as Falun Gong take place all the time on our campuses — just not with direct Hanban funding. And this seems like a quite reasonable arrangement: it allows universities to take advantage of Hanban’s generous support for expansion of programs on Chinese language and culture, without restricting freedom of inquiry for our scholars and students to investigate potentially sensitive political and historical topics.

AAUP demands that universities must have "unilateral control … over all academic matters" related to the work of CIs, but the reality is that this is already the case: No one in China, or any other foreign country, can in the end tell us how to manage our universities. If Hanban were to ask us for changes to our curriculum or adjustments to the topics of our lecture series as a condition for receiving further funding, we would obviously have to stop working with Hanban. It is to the great credit of the Hanban leadership that it simply hasn’t made demands of that sort, despite the political difficulties such flexibility can occasionally cause for it within China.

Second, AAUP demands that each university with a CI "afford … Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights … that it affords all other faculty in the university." This seems to rest on a basic misunderstanding of U.S. immigration law. Hanban scholars come to U.S. universities as J-1 exchange scholars or J-1 interns, subject to the rules and regulations governing such visas; they already have the same academic freedom rights while on our campuses as other international visiting scholars. But U.S. universities simply cannot dictate to the foreign governments that send us these scholars — China included — what their domestic labor laws or home university governance should look like. From a classical liberal arts perspective, the argument for hosting exchange scholars from foreign countries with authoritarian governments is that in doing so, we expose students and faculty to a full range of world viewpoints and thus prepare our scholarly community for successful global engagement. Such scholars also have the opportunity to experience life in a free society and return home with a better grasp of what makes the American way of life so special.

If the AAUP leadership is arguing against this entire line of reasoning — that we should, in effect, cease all J-1 scholarly exchange programs except with countries rated at or near the top of Freedom House‘s democracy rankings — I imagine that there would be much debate about that idea among the AAUP membership. If AAUP is instead arguing that J-1 programs should be stopped only with China, but not with Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Singapore, or any number of other countries where academic governance and labor laws fall short of ideal U.S standards, then that argument needs to be somehow justified and substantiated in much more detail.

Third, AAUP demands that all U.S. university agreements with Hanban be made fully public. Since my experience with CIs has been at two public universities, I can quickly confirm that this requirement is already satisfied at the University of Washington and the College of William & Mary: In principle, all of our university contracts with overseas partners are public documents. Now it is quite true that the content of international agreements with non-U.S. partners can involve delicate negotiations to ensure compliance with university rules and U.S. law — but this is an issue with all such agreements, not only those with Hanban. If AAUP wishes on principle to demand that all U.S. university administrations make public all of their international agreements — in short, to ensure that private universities adopt the same policy that is already mandated by definition at public universities — that might be a cause worth debating. If instead the AAUP only wants to ensure that agreements with Chinese partners at U.S. private universities are made public, one again wonders why only the People’s Republic of China, and not any other country with which AAUP may disagree on policy issues, should be subjected to such special scrutiny.

AAUP is absolutely correct to be continually vigilant about potential threats to academic freedom, including those originating from foreign countries. However, the recent AAUP statement on CIs, based as it is on several misunderstandings about how CIs work in practice, is in my view counterproductive. In a complex and interdependent world, it can be tempting to wall ourselves off from interactions with partners that have perspectives on political and ethical issues that are quite different from those typical of many U.S. faculty members. One would think that AAUP, of all organizations, would wish instead to encourage programs that open up new opportunities for faculty, students, and the community to engage with diverse international points of view — including those sponsored by Hanban.

Mary Gallagher, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Richard H. Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan:

The University of Michigan has a vibrant Chinese studies community with a long history and a strong institutional commitment from the university. The Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (LR-CCS), which I direct, recently received a large private endowment (hence its new name). The University of Michigan has also housed a Confucius Institute on campus for the last five years. Amid some controversy and faculty opposition, it was established with a specific focus on Chinese arts and culture. It is not involved in language training.

As others have correctly argued, CIs based at major universities with strong Asian studies programs are less likely to close out debate or dominate the discourse on China on campus. Our situation may not be similar to those of universities with limited resources for Chinese studies. When I proposed a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Student Movement, the LR-CCS invited the University of Michigan’s CI to co-sponsor one of the events. It agreed. We regularly co-sponsor events such as film series, which have included films banned on the mainland.

While I personally was not enthusiastic about the presence of a CI on campus, I cannot give specific examples of interference or self-censorship, though I take professor Perry Link’s warning about the insidiousness of self-censorship seriously. Given that our center has just received a large gift from a private source and has just submitted our next Title VI grant application to the U.S. Department of Education, we must always be vigilant in protecting the principle of academic freedom. Diverse sources of support and a vibrant community of scholars who surely disagree on a number of issues related to China make our work easier. It is a pity that many academic institutions in the United States, particularly public institutions, do not have these luxuries.

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