Hanban Triage: A DC Panel Tries to Save Confucius Institutes

Rachelle Peterson

Last week the Confucius Institute US Center sponsored an event at the National Press Club in Washington DC on the “future of educational exchanges between China and the U.S.” The panelists offered a reassuring picture of Confucius Institutes on American college and university campuses, and predicted an even more uplifting future, with Confucius Institutes introducing American students to Chinese language and culture.

The panel executed a plan the Chinese government announced in January to “reform” the image of Confucius Institutes. The Hanban, the agency of the Chinese government tasked with overseeing Confucius Institutes, revealed then that it intended to address the growing criticism of Confucius Institutes by improving their image and retooling them to “better serve Chinese diplomacy,” according to the Global Times

The National Association of Scholars has called for colleges and universities to close their Confucius Institutes, citing extensive evidence that Confucius Institutes undermine academic freedom, present students with a one-sided view of China, and entangle colleges and universities in a web of financial relationships that leave them dependent on China. Our report, Outsourced to China, remains a comprehensive look at the way the Chinese government works to coopt American colleges and universities. We also note that the FBI and multiple members of Congress are also concerned that in addition to undermining academic freedom, Confucius Institutes may jeopardize national security.

At the DC event, the Confucius Institute US Center brushed aside these concerns. They rarely attempted to rebut these criticisms, but engaged instead in a strategy of minimizing. They minimized the role of the Chinese government; minimized the amount of money Confucius Institutes bring; minimized concerns about national security; minimized the risks of one-sided contracts that favor China; and minimized the threat to academic freedom. Instead, they overstated the role of Confucius Institutes in establishing a healthy relationship between the US and China and even—according to Arizona State University Vice President Matt Salmon—in creating “world peace.”

Minimizing the Role of the Chinese Government

The Hanban is an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education, itself overseen by a council comprising representatives from 12 Chinese state agencies, including the State Press and Publications Administration, which handles propaganda.

John Holden, the CEO of US-China Strong Foundation, noted in his opening remarks, “As you probably know the individual Confucius Institutes are all organized through separate arrangements through the universities where they are hosted.” Matt Salmon, Vice President of Governmental Affairs at Arizona State University, said that the Confucius Institute is “completely managed by Arizona State University. We manage it, we control it.”

Holden and Salmon’s statements dramatically underrepresent the reach of the Hanban. The Hanban via the Confucius Institutes oversees curriculum and controls who may apply for teaching positions in the Confucius Institute. The individual memoranda that universities sign with the Hanban do not mean that the universities control the relationship or even guarantee the academic freedom of Confucius Institute teachers.  Nor does the presence of an American co-director working alongside a Chinese co-director.

Minimizing the Financial Strings

Most Confucius Institutes come with a $100,000 per year payment to the university, in addition to free teachers and textbooks, and a host of side benefits such as trips abroad for faculty and students and speaking tours for college administrators.

Salmon said that the money Arizona State University receives is minimal: “I’ve read pieces that say that somehow these universities are chasing the money. Well I think we get about $200,000. Our budget is $3 billion. That’s a rounding error for an hour. It’s not going to make much of an impact on ASU.” (Federal disclosure reports, which are spotty, show that ASU reported a total of $882,250 in contributions from China for its Confucius Institute from 2013-2015.) Salmon added, “$200,000 is not enough of an enticement to give away our academic freedom.”

This raises the question of what price Arizona State University actually puts on academic freedom. Would, say, an additional $126 million make a difference? That’s an estimate of the tuition revenue ASU receives annually from Chinese students paying international tuition rates (4,000 students paying about $31,500 per year in ASU’s stated international tuition and fees).

Minimizing National Security

In February FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Confucius Institutes were among the “worldwide threats” his agency was “watching warily.” “We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes,” Wray said in response to a question from Senator Marco Rubio, noting that “it is something that we are watching warily, and in certain areas have developed appropriate investigative steps.” Wray also noted that he had seen a troubling “level of naiveté on the part of the academic sector.”

Salmon said he was “a little bit incredulous” at concerns such as those from the FBI. Noting that the Department of Defense had provided funding for Arizona State University’s Chinese language program, including its Confucius Institute, Salmon said the federal funding “shows they’re not concerned about it being a threat to national security.”

Salmon did not respond either to the claim by two current members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Michael McCaul and Democrat Henry Cuellar, who wrote in a letter to Texas universities that “Confucius Institutes and other Chinese government supported academic organizations, such as the China-United States Exchange Foundation, are intended to spread China’s political agenda, suppress academic debate, and steal vital academic research.”

Minimizing the Risks of Confucius Institute Contracts

NAS has pointed out that many universities have signed memoranda of understanding and other contracts with the Hanban and with partner Chinese universities that contain troubling clauses. Many contracts forbid actions that “contravene concerning Chinese law,” threaten legal action for any behavior that “tarnished the reputation” of the Confucius Institutes, and hold that financial disputes should be settled in Beijing courts. Most are also kept secret, locked away from public view. When researching for our study, we had to file Freedom of Information requests to access memoranda signed by public colleges and universities. No private universities agreed to share final memoranda.

We found that these contracts signaled the Hanban’s priorities. Some clauses appeared unenforceable—could the Hanban really haul American colleges into Chinese courts?—but served as a way for the Hanban to make clear the kinds of behavior it expected in order for the money to continue to flow.

We likened these contracts to the “anaconda in the chandelier” Perry Link used to describe Chinese policies.  The Chinese government likes to pressure individuals to self-censor and to engage in apparently voluntary behavior that happens to conform with Chinese government interests. All the while, the government operates like a deadly anaconda watching from the chandelier above, threatening to pounce if needed, but confident that its mere presence will compel obedience. Similarly, the Hanban has encouraged American colleges and universities to adopt policies, sometimes in writing but more often unspoken, to curb criticism of the Chinese government.

Harvey Perlman, a professor of law and former chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, accused NAS of lying about these contracts. “There’s this National Academy of Scholars [sic] or something that wrote this big report based on a contract that is not acceptable in anyplace and is not effective anyplace.” Perlman said that at his suggestion, the Hanban recently updated its template contract. Perlman also said when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln opened a Confucius Institute, he edited the proposed contract to remove these clauses and was pleased the Hanban approved his changes.

At NAS’s request, Perlman and his colleague, Charles Wood, director of the UNL Confucius Institute, shared the university’s original memoranda with the Hanban and another memoranda, signed eight years later, with Xi’an Jiaotong University. We note that these documents improve upon the memoranda we have examined at other universities, but they still authorize the Chinese party to be responsible for “designing the curriculum and syllabi” and “selecting teaching materials and methods.” The agreement also calls for both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Xi’an Jiaotong University to select and pay Chinese teachers, though it is unclear how many of the Confucius Institute teachers at UNL are selected by each party.

Perlman misrepresents NAS’s research by claiming our concerns are based on the Hanban’s template contract, which until recently also contained many troubling clauses. Rather, in our report, we cite actual signed memoranda that are in force at American colleges and universities today. These signed documents are the basis for our analysis of the problematic clauses in Confucius Institute contracts.

We also note that Salmon, from Arizona State University, pledged that transparency is important and announced that he will serve as chairman of a new board the Confucius Institute US Center is convening to promote transparency and academic freedom. Arizona State University does not currently post its memoranda on its website, but at our request, Salmon shared with us copies of these documents. We note that the most recent agreement includes a provision allowing the Hanban to close the Confucius Institute “if the actions of Arizona State University severely harm the image and reputation of the Confucius Institute.” It also affords the Hanban and Sichuan University a key role in deciding who will teach Confucius Institute courses. Salmon said that these documents are in the process of being updated.

Minimizing the Threat to Academic Freedom

NAS’s study found that Confucius Institutes lacked mechanisms to protect the academic freedom of Confucius Institute teachers hired by the Hanban. We also found that Confucius Institutes jeopardized the academic freedom of American professors, many of whom reported pressure to self-censor in order to keep a good relationship with the Hanban. Sometimes these professors said the pressure came from the Confucius Institute itself. But more often, the pressure to self-censor originated in university administrators who wanted to protect the funding stream from China. As one professor told us, “This is my career and livelihood on the line.”

The American Association of University Professors came to the same conclusion in 2014, when it released a statement noting that “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.” The AAUP also wrote that Confucius Institutes “sacrificed the integrity of the university and its academic staff.”

Salmon did not address these accusations but noted the creation of a new board of directors, which he will chair, which will “ensure our objectives about academic freedom are being respected and adhered to.”

Panelists also claimed that there was no censorship of controversial topics. Salmon noted that several scholars from Taiwan presented at a Confucius Institute-sponsored event (but did not clarify whether the event was about Taiwan itself.) Winston Langley, Professor of International Relations at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which has been criticized for erasing mention of Tibet in its programs, responded “not on my campus,” to the question of whether Confucius Institutes engage in censorship.

Madelyn Ross, Associate Director of China Studies and Executive Director of SAIS China at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Confucius Institutes do not censor, but they do refuse to discuss certain topics.  “Acknowledge that if you are trying to organize on human rights in Tibet, the Confucius Institute is not going to sponsor and not trying to help. If they try to undermine it, that’s crossed the line, but if you plan that event, you would not go to that particular organization and probably several others that have a separate agenda.”

Unmentioned Risks

There are other concerns about Confucius Institutes that this DC event did not address. One is the plight of Chinese students studying abroad in the US. Many are under close surveillance by the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party has begun setting up party cells on American campuses to provide “ideological guidance” to these students. One student described additional meetings, upon returning to China, where students were asked to report “whether other students had some anti-party thought.” At least one of these party cells, at West Virginia University, is reported to have worked in conjunction with the local Confucius Institute.

Another risk is theft of intellectual property. In April,  the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the topic “Scholars or Spies: Foreign Plots Targeting America’s R&D.” Michael Wessel, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, testified that the Chinese government has “stolen or subsidized a massive transfer of research from the US” to China, and cited “the propagation and funding of Confucius Institutes” as one of China’s less-than-wholesome tools.

A third issue is the prospect of discrimination. The Chinese government typically screens and proposes prospective Confucius Institute teachers, leaving the university to select among  these pre-selected candidates. In the past, the Chinese government has employed explicitly discriminatory hiring practices, banning those who participate in Falun Gong. In 2013, McMaster University in Canada shut down its Confucius Institute when a teacher came forward with evidence of religious discrimination and filed a complaint against the university in the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The Chinese government may well engage in other discriminatory hiring practices, such as preferring teachers who are members of the Chinese Communist Party.


NAS will continue to watch colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes, calling on them to close these Institutes in order to protect academic freedom. We applaud all efforts to provide greater transparency, such as posting online all agreements with the Hanban and partner universities. We also urge colleges and universities to be transparent about the funds—whether in monetary or in-kind gifts—that Confucius Institutes bring. We will watch with eagerness the promised creation of a board of directors to promote academic freedom and transparency within Confucius Institutes, and we will call out colleges and universities that fail to behave in a transparent manner.

Ultimately, however, we continue to call on colleges and universities to cut ties with the Hanban. This is no “McCarthyism,” as Salmon claimed. It is a serious, reasoned call for colleges and universities to protect their integrity. The Chinese government has systematically used Confucius Institutes to entangle colleges and universities. It is time for Confucius Institutes to close.

Image Credit: Public Domain

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