Confucius Institutes on Campus: A New Threat to Academic Freedom

Rachelle Peterson

Intellectual freedom is under many assaults today, often from within academia itself. Think of Berkeley, Middlebury, or Claremont McKenna, where protesting students closed down public events featuring controversial speakers. But higher education also suffers from an external threat—a threat that, oddly enough, American higher education has warmly welcomed. Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes jeopardize the academic freedom of American professors and threaten the autonomy of our colleges and universities.

The National Association of Scholars has just completed a study of these threats. Our new report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, focuses on case studies of the twelve Confucius Institutes in New York and New Jersey.1

The Chinese director of the New Jersey City University Confucius Institute told me that “we don’t touch” anything related to the status of Taiwan or of Falun Gong, a meditative sect outlawed in China (98). If a student raises a question about Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy movement the Chinese government brutally suppressed there in 1989, she says she will “show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture” (99).

A senior professor at a State University of New York school noted the risks he faces for questioning his campus’s Confucius Institute: “[T]his is my career and livelihood on the line” (89). His university has grown fond—very fond—of the money that China provides, and he would commit professional suicide if he were to challenge the font of those funds.

Binghamton University’s Asian and Asian American Studies librarian, Julie Wang, herself an immigrant from China at age nineteen, keeps a photo of Tank Man (the unknown man who stood in front of a column of tanks the day after the Tiananmen Square protests) in her office. She had a friend at Tiananmen. To her, Binghamton’s Confucius Institute represents the China she fled. Last year she and the institute tussled over the wording for a library display of opera costumes funded by the Confucius Institute: whether to use “Peking Opera,” a common academically accepted term, or “Beijing Opera,” the term preferred by the Chinese government. It wasn’t an exceptionally consequential matter, but the intensity of that dispute convinced Wang to “not step on the bomb.” She decided it would be futile to challenge the Confucius Institute on more substantive matters. Her new motto is “to avoid controversial issues” (110).

Wang also shared with me her concern for Chinese students studying abroad in the United States. Once she had hoped these students would learn about Tiananmen Square, or the news of human rights abuses that China suppresses. But many have flocked to the Confucius Institute as a cultural center, where they learn only more of the propaganda they were raised with in China.

These examples hint at the sway the Chinese government holds over parts of American higher education. Since 2004, the Chinese government has invested millions of dollars in teaching foreign students its preferred version of Chinese culture. A Chinese government agency, the Hanban, has planted more than five hundred Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities worldwide, including 103 in the United States. The Hanban operates another thousand-plus Confucius Classrooms at K–12 schools, including 501 in the United States. In all, 38 percent of the Hanban’s outposts are in the U.S. (9, 15).

China isn’t unique in sending teachers around the world to promote its language and culture. The United States also hosts many of Germany’s Goethe Institutes, France’s Alliance Française, and the British Council—all of which operate as stand-alone nonprofits. China’s distinction is in planting its institutes at colleges and universities, where the institutes can offer courses that count for college credit, and where they can avail themselves of universities’ reputation and prestige. On campus, the Chinese government has easy access to the next generation of Americans interested in China—and to the huge numbers of Chinese students who are studying abroad in the U.S.

Confucius Institutes operate like class-in-a-box kits. The Hanban sends operating funds, free teachers, and free textbooks—everything a college would need to offer courses in Chinese language and culture. Host universities are supposed to provide matching funds, which they tend to do with in-kind donations such as classroom space, office equipment, and an American director (often a university professor or senior member of the administration). Much of the support actually comes from China.

Because American universities are eager for funding, especially in the humanities, and increasingly dependent on foreign students, who pay full tuition, Confucius Institutes are an attractive financial prospect. In addition to receiving the funding for these institutes, universities can consider Confucius Institute courses as for-credit, which means they can charge students tuition for a service that the university itself receives for free. But because the Hanban sends the funds, picks the textbooks, and screens, trains, and pays the teachers, it has significant control over what students at Confucius Institutes learn about China.

The pressure that China can exert on universities is the first of several concerns NAS raised in its study of Confucius Institutes. The Hanban operates as a branch of the Chinese government and its governing council comprises the heads of twelve Chinese government ministries, among them the government’s propaganda department (the State Press and Publications Administration) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Hanban’s financial pressure on universities, combined with its explicit authority over textbooks and teachers, leads Confucius Institutes to craft courses in line with the Chinese government’s preferences.

Second, there is very little transparency around Confucius Institutes. Universities sign contracts with the Hanban and with a partner Chinese university. In none of our twelve case studies were these contracts publicly released. This makes it difficult for the public to know what exactly the Hanban requires or to assess the ways in which academic freedom or institutional autonomy may have been compromised.

We filed requests for contracts between the Hanban and American universities under state Freedom of Information laws with the eight public universities among our case studies. One private institution, Pace University, agreed to provide an unsigned draft copy. Two of these contracts included explicit requirements from the Hanban that the university keep these documents “confidential.”

What is in these contracts that the Hanban deems sensitive?

Two sections within each of these contracts speak to the way Confucius Institutes treat intellectual freedom.

One section forbids “tarnishing the reputation of the Confucius Institutes.” The penalties for doing so include revocation of the contract, immediate closure of the Confucius Institute, and loss of all funds from the Hanban. The “Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes” also holds that a Chinese agency can “pursue legal action” against universities that commit serious offenses, including “tarnishing” the reputation of Confucius Institutes.2 Both documents imply that harming the image of the Hanban’s Confucius Institutes project—not just the image of a particular institute—warrants such reprisals.

All nine Confucius Institute contracts we examined include such a prohibition on tarnishing the reputation of the Confucius Institute project. What counts as “tarnish,” however, is unclear. Would a group of professors who express concerns about the Hanban’s programs count as sufficient “tarnish” for the Hanban to invoke penalties? What about professors or administrators, intent on defending academic freedom, who insist on giving teachers a free hand to discuss Chinese political history?

To my knowledge, no Confucius Institute has been forcibly closed for harming the Hanban’s reputation. But the “tarnish” clause is one way China can press American universities to enforce China’s preferences. The opportunity costs of offending China are high, and this provides universities with the incentive to err on the side of keeping the Hanban happy.

Another contractual clause of interest is the requirement that Confucius Institutes “do not contravene concerning” the laws and regulations of the U.S. or China. Every Confucius Institute contract we examined included some reference to Chinese law or to the “Confucius Institute Constitution,” which itself includes adherence to Chinese law among its requirements for all Confucius Institutes.

What does it mean to “not contravene” Chinese law? How does the Hanban expect universities to handle discrepancies between American law and Chinese law? Falun Gong is banned in China; stories such as that of Sonia Zhao, a Confucius Institute teacher who filed for religious asylum in Canada after facing discrimination against her Falun Gong participation, suggests the sect is also banned in Confucius Institutes.3 What other discriminatory or illiberal Chinese laws may be in force on Western college campuses?

Every Confucius Institute director we spoke to dismissed the relevance of contractual language averring loyalty to Chinese law. Pace University Confucius Institute director Joseph Lee noted that the Chinese Ministry of Education might appear impressive “horizontally” across a large geographic region, but that it lacks the “resources on the ground” to enforce the regulations it puts in print.4

The Hanban appears to have no legal power to compel American staff of Confucius Institutes to follow Chinese law. But it can use the leverage of privileges such as all-expenses-paid trips to China, visits from high-ranking Chinese officials, or increased funding for study abroad. Again, since the Hanban exercises strategic ambiguity as to what portions of Chinese law most concern it, the policy encourages universities to err on the side of respecting Chinese preferences in what Confucius Institute staff members say, speak, and do.

Contractual language isn’t the only thing Confucius Institutes shield from easy public access. The directors are also elusive. Ten of the twelve directors whose Confucius Institutes I studied declined interviews, never answered repeated emails or phone calls, or made appointments that they broke. The American director of the New Jersey City University Confucius Institute, Daniel Julius, made and broke four separate appointments with me.

The directors at Binghamton University and the University at Albany initially welcomed my proposed visit on campus, but inexplicably cancelled immediately before I was scheduled to arrive. Binghamton University’s director, Zu-yan Chen, emailed a note saying that he and his entire staff had become “extremely busy,” so he would have to cancel every interview previously arranged for that day. When I arrived on campus, I found the Confucius Institute locked with the lights off.5

At the University at Albany, the Confucius Institute director Youqin Huang emailed four days before our scheduled meeting to say that her “schedule has just changed this week,” leading her to cancel our meeting, as well as my meeting with her Chinese co-director, Cao Dejun. Again, I arrived on campus to find the Confucius Institute locked with the lights off.

Alfred University in upstate New York exhibited the most secrecy of all. A private university, it had declined all requests to release documents related to its Confucius Institute, and the institute director Wilfred Huang never answered my emails or phone calls. When I arrived on campus to sit in on a Confucius Institute class, having called ahead and received the permission of the teacher to attend, the university provost, Rick Stephens, interrupted class midway to order me to leave. He cited worried phone calls from the Confucius Institute director, who had learned I was on campus. Provost Stephens and another Confucius Institute teacher escorted me off campus, one on each side, and stayed to watch me unlock my car and leave.

The extraordinary secrecy of the Confucius Institutes gives the impression that either the institutes have something to hide, or that they are entirely indifferent to American norms of transparency.

A third concern raised in our study is the prospect of entanglement. Confucius Institutes are part of a growing web of relationships between American universities and China. More than a dozen American universities operate campuses in China, such as New York University’s Shanghai campus. The number of Chinese students enrolling in American universities—and paying full tuition—is skyrocketing. According to the Institute of International Education, 328,547 Chinese students enrolled at American universities during the 2015–2016 school year—31.5 percent of all foreign students in the U.S. Those numbers are up more than five times from 62,582 Chinese students a decade earlier, making the flow of Chinese students essential to many colleges’ survival.6 Because Confucius Institutes operate as a partnership between an American university and a Chinese university, they raise the profiles of American universities in China, helping them to recruit study abroad students on their way to the U.S.

Confucius Institutes frequently offer other side benefits, such as funding for professors and administrators to travel in China, often to enjoy official tours and state dinners. Some Confucius Institutes, such as the one at the University at Buffalo, offer scholarships for American students to study in China. It’s not bad for Americans to spend time in China. But our study raises the possibility that Confucius Institutes may be closely tied to a number of other benefits that a university would be loath to lose, making it especially careful to protect its relationship with the Hanban and to treat China’s preferences, including speech preferences, with exceptional delicacy.

These three major concerns culminate in a fourth: China uses Confucius Institutes as a tool of soft power. Soft power, a term coined in the late 1980s by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, refers to the ability to build strength by cultivating goodwill—by making people like you. Confucius Institutes allow China to sculpt its image in the minds of young Americans, many of whom are undertaking their first serious study of China. And the institutes permit China to build the perception that it funds foreign education out of generosity and kindness.

By presenting China in a positive light, Confucius Institutes help to erase the cultural memory of China’s past human rights abuses. They also help to overshadow reports of its current human rights abuses, such as the pillaging of Falun Gong members for their organs, the regulation of religion, censorship of the Internet, and discriminatory treatment in favor of Communist Party loyalists and others.7 Confucius Institutes help to develop a generation of Americans who know little more about China than the Communist Party’s official history.

What to do about Confucius Institutes? The NAS’s primary recommendation is that all universities should close their Confucius Institutes. On principle, it is inappropriate for a foreign government to influence university policy and enjoy the special privileges of the university’s status—let alone determine the content of a college course. And in practice, we found numerous examples that indicated that Confucius Institutes threaten intellectual freedom on campus (81).

Universities that refuse to close their Confucius Institutes should at least take steps to curb the Hanban’s influence. They should make all contracts available for easy download by any member of the public. They should disclose the annual funding and in-kind gifts made by the Hanban.

Universities should cease outsourcing their classes. No Confucius Institute class should count for credit. No university teacher should be selected by a foreign government.

Universities should renegotiate contracts to remove all requirements to avoid “tarnishing the reputation” of the Confucius Institute, and clarify that any legal disputes will take place in American courts.

Universities should also formally ask the Hanban if its hiring policies comply with American law. Does the Hanban prioritize members of the Communist Party? Are members of Falun Gong still excluded? Is selection based purely on merit? Ask the Hanban for a formal written answer.

Congress and state legislatures should conduct investigations into whether Confucius Institutes jeopardize American interests, including national security. These investigations should also consider whether China uses Confucius Institutes to monitor and intimidate Chinese students studying in the United States.

It is important that American students know and understand China. But they must know China as it is, not as its government presents itself. Confucius Institutes are an exercise in China’s soft power. It is time to cease outsourcing the university.

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