Confucius Institutes and Academic Freedom

In recent years, China’s Confucius Institutes–a program under the Ministry of Education that funds Chinese language and cultural studies programs in schools around the world–have come under scrutiny as concerns rise about Chinese government interference with . The first opened in 2004, and since then close to 500 programs have opened at schools around the world. In 2014, the University of Chicago closed their Confucius Institute over related concerns, and earlier that year, the American Association of University Professors called on all U.S. universities to close their institutes. More recently, the National Association of Scholars, a conservative think tank, conducted an in-depth study looking at the funding structure, curriculum, academic freedom, and hiring policies of Confucius Institutes, and comes to the conclusion that, “to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy.” Inside Higher Ed reports:

The latest take on this contentious topic, a 183-page report on Confucius Institutes from the National Association of Scholars, by the author’s account finds “few smoking guns, and no evidence of outright policies banning certain topics from discussion” — but reasons for concern nonetheless. The report, which examines hiring policies, course offerings and textbooks, funding structures, academic freedom protections, and what the author describes as “formal and informal speech codes” at 12 Confucius Institutes in New Jersey and New York, concludes that “to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Sometimes these concessions are official and in writing; more often they operate as implicit policies.”

The report from NAS recommends that universities close their Confucius Institutes. “Confucius Institutes permit an agency of a foreign government to have access to university courses, and on principle that is a university function,” Rachelle Peterson, the author of the report, said in an interview. “Institutions should have full control over who they hire, over what they teach, and Confucius Institutes basically act like class-in-a-box kits that come ready-made for universities to use.”

Short of closing the institutes — NAS’s primary recommendation — the report makes a series of recommendations for changes that faculty and administrators should push for. Those recommendations include: increased transparency and public disclosure of contractual and funding agreements, and the renegotiation of contracts “to remove constraints against ‘tarnishing the reputation’ of the Hanban” and “to clarify that legal disputes should be settled only in the jurisdiction of the host institution (in our cases, American courts).”

Other recommendations in the report call on universities to “cease outsourcing for-credit courses to the Hanban,” to “formally ask the Hanban if its hiring process complies with American nondiscrimination policies,” and to “require that all Confucius Institutes offer at least one public lecture or class each year on topics that are important to Chinese history but are currently neglected, such as the Tiananmen Square protests or the Dalai Lama’s views on Tibet.” [Source]

For the New York Review of Books, Richard Bernstein also follows up on the NAS report to examine the impact of Confucius Institutes on academic freedom in U.S. universities. He writes about conflicting opinions toward the institutes from American academics and educators. In addition to their work with universities, CI programs fund elementary, middle, and high school language programs:

“My sense is that our CI is not really doing anything nefarious,” David Stahl, a professor of Japanese literature and a CI board member at SUNY Binghamton, told Peterson. “I think, actually, given the terrible state of state funding for SUNY, it’s benefited us greatly.” Stephen Dunnet, an administrator at the University at Buffalo, told her, “It’s shameful that the only way we can offer Chinese in the Buffalo school district—which is almost bankrupt—is that we have to ask the Chinese… There is no way for them to learn Chinese if not for this program.”

So what, then, is the terrible danger? What worries many critics of the CIs is not that they will somehow be able to establish pro-China propaganda departments inside the American academy, but something more subtle—that close relations with a Chinese state agency and dependence on Chinese financial support will give China, not exactly a disinterested party, a strong say in how the country is presented to American elementary schoolchildren and college undergraduates alike. Chinese officials have extolled the CIs as an admirable and effective way of extending what they refer to as China’s soft power, and this is what makes some critics nervous. Will programs on China have the free, critical inquiry that American academic programs are supposed to have? Given China’s concerted efforts to control the discourse on sensitive topics like Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, it seems unlikely that they could be discussed openly within the precincts of the CIs.

In a 2014 book, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins expressed many of these points, arguing that self-censorship is virtually inevitable; otherwise the American partner institution would jeopardize China’s financial support. Sahlins argues that if prominent institutions like Chicago itself give credibility to the CIs, smaller places, especially those without existing, independent China programs, will be encouraged to set them up also, and as they become an accepted part of the academic scene, China will gain considerable influence over how it is presented in American classrooms. There are precedents for this concern: China has successfully pressured Hollywood to make changes in movies so that they can be shown in the Chinese market, has gotten Internet companies to turn over information about their users to the security police, and has used its economic power to dissuade countries from criticizing its human rights record.

Perry Link, professor emeritus of Chinese literature at Princeton, commented on the current and likely future effects of the “outsourcing,” as the NAS report puts it, of Chinese language teaching to China itself: “I would say mainly two things: 1) It induces self-censorship in CI recipients, which is very effective even in the absence of ‘smoking guns’; and 2) It projects a partial view of China, which incurs a double cost: a) taboo topics are not seen, and b) non-taboo topics would not look so innocuous if they could be seen in full context.” [Source]

Bernstein also points out the paradox of China’s Ministry of Education simultaneously promoting a campaign to discredit Western ideology at Chinese universities, which includes the banning of textbooks that promote “Western values.”

Confucius Institutes are part of a broad soft power strategy by the Chinese government, the impact of which is being felt in academia, the media, Hollywood, internet governance, and other spheres. For more on the impact and significance of such efforts, read CDT’s interview with Shanthi Kalathil.