Pressure Mounts to Close Confucius Institutes on College Campuses

Rachelle Peterson

Confucius Institutes, the college-based teaching and research centers sponsored by the Chinese government, are facing new scrutiny. Last week a group launched a campaign to close the Confucius Institute at UMass Boston, followed by a wave of articles in the press, many citing NAS’s 2017 report Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.

Laura Krantz reported at the Boston Globe that seventeen UMass students, professors, alumni, and outside advocates wrote to interim chancellor Barry Mills to express concern about the Confucius Institute. The Institute, tied directly to the Chinese government, offers non-credit courses on Chinese language and culture and sponsors UMass students to study in China. Its budget, about half a million dollars, comes overwhelmingly from the Hanban, an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education. The letter warned that “Confucius Institutes use their foothold in prominent academic institutions to influence and steer academic discourse.” As a result, the Confucius Institute can engage in “direct intervention, or pre-emptive self-censorship” in order to silence “important political and human rights issues.”

Shortly thereafter Politico published a major investigative piece by Ethan Epstein, “How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms.” Epstein interviewed Confucius Institute directors, professors at universities with Confucius Institutes, and students who took Confucius Institute courses, concluding that “At a time when universities are as willing as ever to shield their charges from controversial viewpoints, some nonetheless welcome foreign, communist propaganda—if the price is right.” He documents the way China controls the classrooms by providing the teachers, textbooks, study-abroad scholarships, and more. “They’re kind of like restaurant franchises,” Epstein observes. “Open the kit, and you’re in business.”

Epstein’s piece is in the company of other shorter articles in the Pan-American Post and the World Tribune expressing doubts about Confucius Institutes.

Meanwhile, in a piece at World Politics Review, Joshua Kurlantzick puts Confucius Institutes in context. He notes that China has grown more aggressive in its foreign policy and engages in a host of goodwill-building initiatives, all with an eye to growing its political power. Confucius Institutes are only one piece of a major soft power program.

Many of these concerns echo NAS’s findings set forth in our April 2017 report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. Our study found that Confucius Institutes avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students to know little more of China than the regime’s official history. More than 100 Confucius Institutes operate at American college campuses, all of them directly funded by the Chinese government and staffed by Chinese teachers vetted and trained by China. No other nation enjoys such direct access to American college classrooms. We recommended that all colleges and universities close their Confucius Institutes.

Lhadon Tethong, the organizer of the letter regarding the Confucius Institute at UMass Boston, is quoted by Krantz as saying, “This is the beginning of a campaign to get that Confucius Institute closed.” Perhaps the growing criticism of Confucius Institutes will get the attention of Chancellor Barry Mills. We hope UMass Boston and all other universities will decide on their own that academic freedom and institutional integrity ought not be surrendered to China’s growing soft power initiatives. 

Image: pixabay, photo by jensjunge, no attribution required.

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