Director of Binghamton University’s Confucius Institute Responds to NAS Report

National Association of Scholars

Editor’s Note: NAS’s April 2017 report Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education has prompted a number of responses from professors at Binghamton University, one of our case studies. Here Zu-yan Chen, the director of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University, responds to our report. The other three other responses are from Binghamton University professor John Chaffee,  emeritus professor Don Boros, and scenic artist Wang Qianghua.  We publish Professor Chen’s letter in full and unedited. Below his letter is a response from NAS director of research projects Rachelle Peterson.

Response from Zu-yan Chen, Binghamton University

To the National Association of Scholars:

I am Zu-yan Chen, Distinguished Teaching Professor of the State University of New York and Director of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera (CICO) at Binghamton University. I am writing to respond to Ms. Rachelle Peterson’s report “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.” Frankly speaking, the case study on CICO in this report is full of factual error and false accusations. Professor John Chaffee, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and Director of Binghamton University’s Institute for Asia and Asian Diaspora as well as a CICO Board Member, wrote a response to the report immediately after reading it, correcting three major factual errors and made two general observations. I fully support his response without any reservation.

After Professor Chaffee’s response was posted on the NAS site, Ms. Peterson asked Professor Chaffee to provide “documented evidence” to support his corrections on May 2. Professor Chaffee, a distinguished historian, provided solid evidence on the same day. However, until now Ms. Peterson has only made one correction: that my wife is not a “dancer” but a singer as described on page 105 of the report. Other than this, Ms. Peterson has not admitted or corrected any factual errors. Therefore, I am writing to further clarify a few points, even though those factual errors pointed out by Professor Chaffee are obvious, and easily verified.

  1. About CICO directorship. The report states, “Binghamton University’s CI remained within the theater department for several years, with Boros as acting director” (p. 104), and then, “Boros and Wang urged their colleague Zu-yan Chen, also born in China, to become the new director of the CI and house it in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, where the CI still remains” (p. 105). As Professor Chaffee correctly pointed out, CICO has never been housed in either department and I have served as CICO director since its inception. The common knowledge involved here is that the position of CICO director, as with any other university administrative/leadership position, is appointed by the university administration, not offered from one colleague to another.

  1. About my wife’s employment. Among all the errors and misrepresentations, the one that stands out is the report’s claim that I, in the capacity of CI director, hired my wife Hong Zhang as a university faculty member (p. 105). In addition to the factual error as pointed out by Professor Chaffee, I was again surprised by Ms. Peterson’s ignorance of the common knowledge that no CI director has the power to hire a university faculty member. My wife Hong Zhang, as Professor John Chaffee mentioned, has been a university employee for the past three decades. A professionally trained and acclaimed singer, Hong held a solo concert at the United Nations and gave lectures and workshops at dozens of universities in the U.S., China, and other countries.

  1. About the discussion of “Beijing opera” vs. “Peking opera.” Ms. Julie Wang, a librarian at Binghamton University, and I discussed the choice of words for the placards at the “Chinese Cultural Experience Center” co-sponsored by CICO and the University Libraries. In the discussion, I told Julie that I preferred the term “Beijing opera” for a few reasons. First, “Beijing” replaced “Peking” as the standard romanization of this city a long time ago. Secondly, although both “Beijing opera” and “Peking opera” are currently in use, we use the former on our campus. In our university course catalogue, we see “Beijing opera Face Painting,” “Beijing Opera Stage Combat,” “Beijing Opera Roles,” and so on. In our Chinese language Program, we use the term “Beijing opera” throughout various levels. Therefore, using “Peking opera” in this exhibit could cause student confusion. As Professor Chaffee commented, using “Beijing opera” is “phonetically correct” and this “short” discussion was “amicably settled.” However, the report states that “Beijing opera” is a “Hanban preferred term” (p. 109) and tries to politicize this issue. This is baseless. Hanan had no knowledge of my discussion with Julie and it never indicated which term should be used.  

In addition to correcting the factual errors, Professor Chaffee also made two observations “about the report’s treatment of Binghamton University”: “there have been no incidents at Binghamton involving CICO that have any possible connection to political demands by or sensitivities of the Hanban” and “it (the report) does not do justice to all of CICO’s accomplishments.” These are very fair observations. Since its foundation in November 2009, CICO has offered 26 classes in Beijing opera, 14 classes in Chinese instruments, and 101 classes in Chinese language to 1,861 Binghamton University students. CICO’s performance group held 93 performances in 26 states for a total audience of 28,819 people. CICO students have won many awards in the US East Regional competition and global finals of the “Chinese Bridge” Chinese Language and Culture Contests. In addition, CICO has hosted and participated in numerous outreach programs. These achievements are missing from Ms. Peterson’s case study on CICO.

Ms. Peterson asked Professor Chaffee to provide documents to support his view. This request has made me wonder: does she herself have any documentation supporting her false claims—that Professor Boros and Mr. Wang “asked” me to be CI director (as opposed to my appointment by the university)? That I used my power as CI director to hire my wife as a university faculty member? And, that “Beijing opera” is a “Hanban preferred term”? If she does have documented evidence, would she show them to Professor Chaffee and me? Or would she post these documents on the NAS website?

These and other errors in the report, especially the accusation of my abuse of power in hiring my wife as a university faculty member, have harmfully attacked my character, my wife’s reputation, and Binghamton University’s standing. Hiring my wife would be a serious ethical breach for me requiring immediate resignation of my directorship, implying a corruption scandal if Binghamton University were to accept. To make amends for this damage, I am writing to ask the following:

  1. My response be posted to the NAS website;
  2. Ms. Peterson admit the factual errors in the report, correct them, and apologize to me, to my wife Hong Zhang, and to Binghamton University;
  3. Since NAS has promoted this report vigorously including emailing a substantial number of people multiple times to alert them to the report’s publication, the readership is wide and the damage to the reputations of myself, my wife, and Binghamton University are extensive. Therefore, NAS should circulate Professor Chaffee’s response and my response, together with Ms. Peterson’s apologies, among the same readership.   

Yours sincerely,

Zu-yan Chen

Distinguished Teaching Professor, the State University of New York

Director, the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University

Response from Rachelle Peterson, National Association of Scholars

Dear Professor Chen,

Thank you for your written response to the National Association of Scholars’ report on Confucius Institutes. Your response inadvertently validates some of the criticisms directed at you by some Binghamton University personnel to the effect that you attempt to silence critics and control the narrative. Until you wrote to me in this manner I remained neutral on these accusations but you are giving me direct evidence that such complaints are warranted.

I find it telling that you have chosen to come forward with additional information after the report was written, and that you directly refused to meet with me or speak with me while I was researching Binghamton University. You also took the extraordinary step of cancelling meetings I had arranged with other members of the Confucius Institute staff. Such secrecy is surprising.  Had you kept your appointments, the chances are very good the mistakes you now complain about would never have occurred.

As you requested, I am displaying your written response on the NAS website for all to see. Your other requests are inappropriate. Where there were factual mistakes in the report—some resulting from your refusal to answer any questions I had while conducting research on Binghamton University—we have acknowledged these and corrected the text.

You and Professor Chaffee are not the only Binghamton University professors to respond to NAS’s report since its publication. Others have responded with further information that confirms that there is an internal dispute at Binghamton University regarding the history of the creation of the Confucius Institute and the degree of authority vested in various people associated with it. As an outside observer, I report both sides. Your demand that I present only your side is inappropriate.

Anyone interested in this report will see the updates based on material that was provided to me after the report’s publication. Your demand for further correction and publicity is unwarranted.


Rachelle Peterson
Director of Research Projects, National Association of Scholars

Image: Public Domain

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