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How China Managed to Play Censor at a Conference on U.S. Soil

The Beijing-backed Confucius Institute offers much-needed money to American universities — but with strings attached.

A Tibetan demonstrator flashes a V-Sign as he denounces the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 06, 2008 during a demonstration held in front of the Chinese embassy in Brussels. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
A Tibetan demonstrator flashes a V-Sign as he denounces the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 06, 2008 during a demonstration held in front of the Chinese embassy in Brussels. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Taiwan was scrubbed from my biography.

I’d been invited to give a keynote speech and accept an award at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In a description of my background, I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported. But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed.

The department had given the award annually since 1975. But in the past few years, finances had dwindled and organizers struggled to find the resources to cover the expenses of bringing in a speaker from out of town.

Enter the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated organization that teaches Chinese language and culture and sponsors educational exchanges, with more than 500 branches around the globe. The branch at Savannah State, founded four years ago, agreed to sponsor the speech.

On campuses across the United States, funding gaps are leaving departments with little choice but to turn to those groups with the deepest pockets — and China is keen to offer money, especially through its global network of Confucius Institutes. But when academic work touches on issues the Chinese Communist Party dislikes, things can get dicey.

The invitation came in part as a result of my work as the co-founder of an association for journalists who report on China. I knew about the Confucius Institute’s underwriting. Still, I didn’t want to prejudge, so I decided to attend, to focus my speech on China’s terrible human rights record, and to donate the honorarium to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In a banquet hall full of journalism students, I spoke on issues I’d been writing about for years: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese government repression of Uighurs and Tibetans, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on news outlets and the internet.

I could tell I was making at least one person uncomfortable — the Chinese co-director of the university’s Confucius Institute, Luo Qijuan.

When the event ended, Luo came over to scold me. Speaking in Chinese, she asked why I had criticized China. I should have given students a good impression of China, she said. Didn’t I know that Xi had done so much for the country, that his anti-corruption campaign was working?

“You don’t know the situation now,” she told me. “Things have gotten better.”

The opposite is true, of course. Xi has overseen a sweeping crackdown across Chinese society. During his tenure, the Communist Party has jailed human rights lawyers, constructed a high-tech surveillance regime in the far west, implemented strict internet censorship, tightened media controls, denied Hong Kong the elections it had once promised, and crushed dissent.

As I later learned, it was Luo who insisted that the word “Taiwan” be deleted from my bio before the programs were printed. Luo told university administrators that its inclusion challenged Chinese sovereignty. She threatened to boycott the event if it was not removed.

It wasn’t the first time Luo had tried to bring educational programs more in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s core interests. One administrator told me on the day of the event that Luo had tried, unsuccessfully, to block a teacher of Taiwanese heritage from participating in a Confucius Institute-affiliated program for local public school teachers.

Luo did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did the university. But Gao Qing, the executive director of the Confucius Institute’s public relations office in Washington, says the “Taiwan issue” is a “political topic but not language or culture related” and therefore “should not be included” in the Confucius Institute curriculum.

“The official policy of Confucius Institutes is to teach Chinese language (Mandarin) and cultivate cultural awareness. Confucius Institutes are not supposed to teach current policy and politics,” Gao says.

The censorship isn’t limited to Savannah State.

In 2009, North Carolina State University canceled a planned appearance by the Dalai Lama after its Confucius Institute director warned that the event might harm “strong relationships we were developing with China.” At a China studies academic conference in Portugal in 2014, a Confucius Institute administrator objected to conference materials relating to Taiwan; the materials were confiscated, and Taiwan-related pages were ripped out of the conference programs.

At the University of Albany, the Chinese co-director took down posters related to Taiwan in advance of a visit by officials from Hanban, the office affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education that runs the Confucius Institute.

“Usually there aren’t explicit regulations about things that can’t be said. But there is a very strong understanding that certain topics are off limits,” says Rachelle Peterson, the author of a 2017 report about Confucius Institutes published by the National Association of Scholars, a conservative advocacy group.

“To speak about China in a Confucius Institute is to speak about the good things. The other things don’t exist as far as the Confucius Institute is concerned.”

Some universities are fighting back. In 2013, McMaster University in Canada closed its Confucius Institute after one institute employee, who practiced Falun Gong, claimed she had faced pressure to hide her spiritual practice.

The University of Chicago closed its Confucius Institute in 2014, after a clash with a Hanban official. Pennsylvania State University followed suit the same year. Two Texas A&M branch campuses announced in April that they would close their institutes as well.

But it’s not always so simple. Well-funded schools with established China studies programs have much more leverage over Confucius Institutes; the loss of a few hundred thousand dollars in programming can be replaced. But for lower-profile schools with fewer resources, Hanban funding may be the only opportunity students and community members get to study Chinese or travel to China. Those schools have a more difficult time pushing back against institute censorship.

Savannah State University does not have a well-funded Asian studies department, and as university administrators told me when I was there, its students and members of the surrounding community have few opportunities to travel abroad. The young man working at the front desk of my hotel in Savannah told me he was going to China this summer with a dance troupe, on a trip sponsored by the Confucius Institute. Without institute funding, the dancers would probably never see China.

And so, schools like Savannah State must walk a fine line. “Often the American co-director is interested in supporting academic freedom and trying to manage the Confucius Institute in a way that is constructive,” Peterson says. Each Confucius Institute has two co-directors, one American and one Chinese. But that’s “really hard to do. And in some cases, well near impossible.”

Some U.S. lawmakers are now trying to make that balancing act easier. The Foreign Influence Transparency Act, introduced this year by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, would require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents, which would force the institutes to disclose their funding and activities to the Justice Department. The bill would also require universities to disclose foreign funding in any amount over $50,000.

If passed, the bill would help university administrators compare their own agreements with Confucius Institutes to those at other universities, allowing them to make more informed decisions about the conditions, benefits, and risks of partnering with an institute on campus.

But some analysts argue that scrutiny and transparency aren’t enough; if Americans want students who are educated and knowledgeable on China, then the U.S. government has to start matching Chinese efforts with money of its own.

That’s because, as universities face budget cuts, language programs are often the first to go. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of students at U.S. colleges and universities enrolled in Chinese language classes fell from about 61,000 to just over 53,000, a drop of 13.1 percent, according to studies by the Modern Language Association.

By contrast, enrollment at the University of Mississippi’s Chinese-language program remains steady. The university is home to a U.S. government-funded Chinese Language Flagship Program.

It’s natural for universities like Savannah State to want to maximize opportunities for their students. But as long as money is tight and the Chinese government is ready to fill the funding void, Confucius Institutes will continue to have leverage over U.S. campuses.

Update, May 15, 2018: This article was updated to include an additional quote from Gao Qing, the Confucius Institute U.S. Center’s executive director.

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