American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse

Rachelle Peterson

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy on May 9, 2017.

China is spending an enormous amount of money trying to build goodwill overseas by building schools. By itself, that’s not unusual. Many nations send teachers abroad as a form of cultural and linguistic diplomacy: the Alliance Française for French, the Goethe-Institut for German, the Instituto Cervantes for Spanish, and the British Council for English.

China’s Confucius Institutes sound similar enough to these Western institutions. But their activities are far more pernicious. Though the Confucius Institutes present themselves as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, it would be more accurate to think of them as a way for China to subvert American higher education. And, without greater vigilance by American universities, this is precisely what they will accomplish.

Confucius Institutes operate in a fundamentally different way than their Western counterparts. Whereas Germany, France, Spain, and Britain erect their own stand-alone institutes that offer extracurricular courses, China insists on planting its Confucius Institutes inside existing colleges and universities. China has poured plenty of money into this effort; although Confucius Institutes only started operating in 2004, China now has 513 of them worldwide, plus another 1,074 Confucius Classrooms located in primary and secondary schools. That’s far more than the Goethe-Institut’s 159 schools or even the Alliance Française’s 850 outfits. And this investment is heavily targeted at the United States, which is home to more Confucius Institutes and Classrooms than any other nation — 39 percent of the total. And Western universities, for their part, have eagerly seized on the opportunities offered by Confucius Institutes.

But those opportunities come with plenty of strings attached. I’ve just completed a two-year research report on 12 Confucius Institutes in New York and New Jersey. I found that Confucius Institutes operate as central nodes in the deepening relationship between China and Western universities — many of which are dependent on full-tuition-paying Chinese students and desperate for funding for humanities programs. But Confucius Institutes also serve as a vehicle for Chinese propaganda, restricting what the teachers they supply from China can say, distorting what students learn, and pressuring American professors to censor themselves.

These problems haven’t gone unnoticed. So far two American universities — the University of Chicago and Penn State — have closed their Confucius Institutes. They’ve been joined by Stockholm University, France’s Lyon University, and McMaster University in Canada, among others. McMaster took this step after a Confucius Institute teacher filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging the university was complicit in discriminatory hiring practices, which forbade practitioners of the religious movement Falun Gong.

It is time for more colleges and universities to follow suit. Confucius Institutes have no place on campus.

One practical reason for shuttering Confucius Institutes is the way China’s unprecedented arrangement subverts universities’ academic autonomy. Confucius Institutes are directly tied to the Chinese government. The Hanban (a Chinese abbreviation for the “Office of Chinese Language Council International”), inside the Ministry of Education, oversees all Confucius Institutes worldwide. The Hanban’s governing council is made up of the heads of 12 Chinese government ministries — including the State Press and Publications Administration (which handles state-run media and propaganda) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Hanban “dispatches” teachers and textbooks from China and requires universities to get its approval on all course offerings and extracurricular programs.

Imagine colleges and universities requesting permission from the U.S. government before finalizing course syllabi. Few if any American universities would accept such an imposition, but more than 100 are perfectly willing to cede that piece of autonomy to Beijing.

The contractual language the Hanban pushes on universities poses a more substantive threat to academic autonomy. The Confucius Institute constitution requires all universities to avoid “tarnish[ing] the reputation of the Confucius Institutes” — an offense punishable by revocation of the contract, immediate loss of all Hanban funds, and potential unspecified “legal action.” I examined eight signed contracts between American universities and the Hanban, all eight of which duplicate this language almost verbatim.

The breadth of the definition of “tarnish” is unclear. Would a vote by the faculty senate raising concerns about their university’s Confucius Institute count as sufficient harm to the Hanban to justify intervention from China? And it seems implausible that China could claim legal jurisdiction over part of a campus within another nation. I asked college and university administrators about these contractual requirements and never got a clear answer. It is clear they aren’t sure exactly what the Hanban expects of them when it comes to guarding its reputation. But China’s funding for Confucius Institutes is generous, and universities err on the side of respecting Hanban’s preferences.

The siting of the institutes inside college campuses, where their courses can often be taken for university credit, poses its own threat to academic integrity. Universities with Confucius Institutes essentially outsource their courses to China. Western universities diminish their own prestige by allowing the Chinese government to freeload off it. No other nation enjoys such direct access to a foreign classroom. Branches of the Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut have no relationship to college and university credit-bearing courses and are thus made to earn their own reputations.

American colleges should also consider the values being promulgated through the Confucius Institutes’ teaching. The institutes have a history of presenting a whitewashed version of China. In its less guarded moments, the Chinese government has even admitted this intent. In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, called the Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.” The Confucius Institutes themselves acknowledge their role in China’s “publicity” efforts — though fail to note that in Chinese, “publicity” and “propaganda” are the same word.

The Chinese government tries to avoid touchy subjects by forbidding Confucius Institutes from discussing politics, history, and economics. It instructs staff to focus on themes that promote amity towards China: “enhancing understanding of the Chinese language and culture,” “deepening friendly relationships with other nations,” and developing programs that “construct a harmonious world.” None of these is necessarily deleterious, but taken together they leave students with a remarkably incomplete view of China. Frank discussion of Tibetan immolations or the labor camp system in China, for instance, is not likely to “deepen friendly relationships” between China and other countries.

The Chinese government is prepared for the fact that touchy subjects will still come up, via questions from students in class. For instance, Confucius Institute teachers report training from the Hanban in how to handle questions about Taiwan and Tibet; they are supposed to change the subject or, failing that, represent both as undisputed territories of China. The Hanban’s official maps, like all mainland cartography, depict Taiwan as a province; at a meeting of the European Association for Chinese Studies, the Confucius Institutes’ international director, Xu Lin, had all the pages from Taiwanese institutions torn out of the conference program. The Chinese director at the New Jersey City University Confucius Institute told me that her stock answer to questions about Tiananmen Square was to “show a photograph and point out the beautiful architecture.”

University professors told me of the pressure they felt to avoid offending China. Administrators feared jeopardizing the Hanban’s funding stream. A State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany professor found that all faculty office doors had been stripped of banners referencing Taiwan the day of a site visit by Hanban officials. Another professor within the SUNY system, who requested anonymity, said he would jeopardize his job if he were to question openly his university’s Confucius Institute: “This is my career and livelihood on the line.” Many others reported fear of losing visas to visit and conduct research in China.

The Hanban also asks Confucius Institutes to “not contravene” both local and Chinese law — with no official guidance on how to handle discrepancies between the two. That leaves staff uncertain of where the line lies — and erring on the side of caution. Every Confucius Institute contract I examined required such an adherence to Chinese law, or adherence to the Confucius Institute constitution, which itself requires all Confucius Institutes to follow Chinese law.

This lack of clarity echoes China’s own laws on speech, which American scholar Perry Link has aptly described as an “anaconda in the chandelier.” Chinese censorship operates like a dangerous snake suspended overhead, quiet and still, its very presence nudging passersby to move beyond its reach. Chinese law doesn’t spell out exactly what citizens can and can’t say; the law is vague and the enforcement selective. People censor themselves in an effort to avoid the anaconda — and the zone of allowed speech is gray and ever-shifting. In recent years in China, it has been getting narrower. Universities must ask if that’s something they want to get a foothold in the United States.

Confucius Institutes export the fear of speaking freely around the world. They permit a foreign government intimate influence over college classrooms. It’s time to kick them off campus.

Image: By Derzsi Elekes Andor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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