This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of IMPERFECTIOn, the print newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.
“We don’t touch it.”
That’s how Xiuli Yin at New Jersey City University describes her approach to topics deemed sensitive in China. She won’t discuss the status of Taiwan, or the treatment of members of Falun Gong, a peaceful sect that the Chinese government has labeled a terrorist organization.
Yin, on leave from Jilin HuaQiao University of Foreign Languages in China, also tries not to talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. If a student asks her what happened during the June 4th events, she will show a photograph of the square— empty, or flooded with tourists, but never with the 1989 protesters. She said she would “point out the beautiful architecture.”
Why this tip-toeing approach to Chinese history and politics? Yin is among the staff of the New Jersey City University Confucius Institute, one of 103 such teaching centers in the US. Confucius Institutes (CIs) are located at American universities, but they enjoy few of the freedoms of American academia. That’s because Confucius Institutes are a project of the Chinese government, run through an agency called the Hanban. The Hanban funds Confucius Institutes and staffs them with teachers selected, screened, and trained by the Hanban. As a result, China gets to weigh in on the rules, which include some “no-touching” policies on certain types of speech.
The National Association of Scholars has just released a major study of Confucius Institutes. Outsourced to China tells the stories of others whose testimony matches Yin’s. Few universities have the temerity, not to mention the financial independence, to turn down China’s generous offer. The Hanban pays (and screens) teachers, provides thousands of free (government-approved) textbooks, and offers general operating support around $100,000 a year. American universities are technically required to match the Hanban’s gifts, but typically do so by sharing some classrooms and office suites, and granting access to computers and printers. Universities get some for-credit courses taught for free and much-desired funding for a humanities program. China gets an opportunity to mold the way the next generation of Americans think about China.
NAS isn’t the first to raise these concerns. In 2014, the University of Chicago shut down its CI after professors argued that it limited academic freedom and outsourced important university functions to a foreign government. That year, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement calling CIs a partnership that “sacrificed the integrity of the university and its academic staff.” But our study, which covers twelve Confucius Institutes, shows that the problems are not unique to one CI here or there. They are built into the system itself. Some say it’s too cynical to consider Confucius Institutes soft power tools of the Chinese regime. Perhaps China’s largesse is genuinely innocent, or perhaps American administrators can successfully milk China for cash without bending to its preferences.
China’s own testimony casts doubt on the first option. 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 Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Jia Qinglin, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (its highest ranking body) noted that “Culture is one important component of our nation’s soft power.”
Our report suggests that the second explanation (that universities can successfully thwart China’s soft power goals) also doesn’t hold water. Some institutes succeed better than others. New York City’s Pace University was able to develop its own Chinese language textbook to replace some of those sent by the Hanban. The University at Buffalo assigns every CI teacher to the supervision of a tenured faculty member, short-circuiting some of the authority (and pressure) exerted by the Hanban.
But regardless of the marginal improvements universities can make, they remain hedged in by certain immovable features of the Confucius Institute model. China holds the money for the CIs, giving universities strong incentives to stay on the Hanban’s good side. Confucius Institutes have turned into a major node of US-Chinese academic relationships. Confucius Institutes can lead to studyabroad funding, fast-tracked approval for receiving fulltuition paying Chinese students, paid trips and fancy state dinners for university presidents and administrators, and a host of other benefits that conveniently come at a time of shrinking institutional budgets.
Further, the contracts that the Hanban asks each university to sign require the university to acknowledge Chinese law, at the very least by the CI teachers, who face pressure to obey Chinese speech codes. These documents also require universities to “accept the assessment” of the Hanban of whether the Institute is successfully teaching students about China, thereby outsourcing an important feature of the university to a foreign body. Perhaps most alarmingly, most contracts state that the Hanban can shut down the Institute and sue the university if it does anything to “tarnish the reputation” of the Confucius Institute or the Hanban. The Hanban doesn’t define “tarnish,” leaving universities to err on the side of respecting Chinese sensitivities.
NAS recommends that universities with Confucius Institutes close them. If China wants to operate CIs, it should build them off campus. American institutions should not outsource their classes to a foreign government. The Chinese government should not free-ride on the authority and prestige of an American university. Even Confucius, who valued integrity over self-serving advantage, would agree.
The full report Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education is available online at www.nas.org/confuciusinstitutes.