Foreign Universities Express Concern Over CCP Influence

The Netherlands’ Groningen University has canceled plans to set up a satellite campus in Yantai, Shandong after council members expressed concerns over reports that the top campus official would have to be appointed from the Chinese government. From AFP:  

Groningen ’s executive board on Monday “decided to cancel plans” to open a branch in Yantai in eastern Shandong province, after failing to win majority approval from the ’s council, a spokesman said.

“The board regrets this, but there is insufficient support within the council for this proposal,” Gernant Deekens said after both the university’s largest personnel and student representative groups said they would blackball the plan.

[…] “There are concerns about how much academic freedom students will have on the campus,” said Tariq Sewbaransingh, chairman of the countrywide Dutch Student Union, which has a branch at Groningen University.

“One of the main concerns, but not the only one, is that the person in charge on the campus would be an official of China’s Communist Party,” he said. [Source]

Last month, a group of students, alumni, and professors from UMass Boston wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the school’s chancellor to discuss concerns that the university’s Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute is promoting censorship and undermining academic freedom. Laura Krantz at The Boston Globe reports:

“Confucius Institutes use their foothold in prominent academic institutions to influence and steer academic discourse,” the group said in a recent letter to interim chancellor Barry Mills, asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns.

The organizer of the objectors said she hopes to persuade the university to shut down the campus institute.

[…] The letter to UMass said the Confucius centers shape public opinion on controversial issues such as Tibetan independence, China’s relationship with Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“As a result of their presence on campus, whether through direct intervention, or pre-emptive self-censorship, important political and human rights issues are being silenced,” the writers said. [Source]

Calls to shut down the institute at UMass is part of a broader wave of opposition to these centers, which currently operate on hundreds of college campuses worldwide, with more than ninety in the United States. The centers are financed by the Chinese government and overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of known as . Advertised as tools to promote Chinese language and cultural exchange, these institutes have drawn controversy in recent years due to fears over Chinese government interference in the choice of curriculum and appointment of faculty. Amid growing concerns about censorship and , the University of Chicago ended its partnership with the Confucius Institute in 2014, after more than 100 professors signed a petition calling for the school to cut the centre. That same year the American Association of University Professors called on all U.S. universities to close their institutes. In Canada, the Toronto school board and McMaster University also terminated their deals with Hanban over censorship concerns and human rights complaints, respectively. 

Although the academic community has raised serious questions about whether the centers belong on college campuses, some universities that maintain Confucius Institutes are going to great lengths to shield them from criticism. Leeza Hirt, a junior at Columbia University and an editor of The Current, looks at efforts by the Columbia administration to steer clear of potentially contentious discussions about its Confucius Institute.

“No one is available for an interview about this matter. Briefly for your background, the provides funding to Columbia in support of Chinese language programs, the study of Chinese culture and research. Faculty members supported under the grant remain subject to the University’s routine policies, practices, and rules regarding faculty members generally at the University. In addition, under Columbia’s agreement with the Institute, Columbia retains sole academic decision-making authority for all activities at the Columbia campus, including activities funded under the agreement. We have been pleased with the program’s success to date.”

[…] And yet, despite the public controversy over the Confucius Institute on other campuses, there has been virtually no conversation about it at Columbia. Aside from one Spectator article when the Institute was established in 2011, it has not been mentioned in any student or University produced publication ever since. This could be because Columbia’s Confucius Institute has a little more autonomy than Confucius Institutes on other campuses. Professor Liu frames the program as a vehicle for academic exchange and mutual understanding, not as a forum for Chinese influence at Columbia. However, there is no evidence that this is actually the case.

Columbia’s Confucius Institute does not have a website that details its operations and lists its affiliated faculty. In fact, the only information about it on the internet is limited to an old webpage on the Hanban website, that states its location, its partnership with Renmin University, and the date it opened. There is no mention of the Institute on the website of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, save for in Professor Liu’s official title as Director. Additionally, the list of faculty affiliated with the Institute are nowhere to be found nor are the researchers and instructors who receive funding.

If Columbia wants us to believe that its branch of the Confucius Institute does not violate the principles of academic freedom, then the University must be more transparent about the Institute’s programming. At the very least, the Office of Public Affairs should be open about what the Hanban’s money actually funds. The Confucius Institute’s mission, faculty, and research topics should be on the EALAC website, or it should have a website of its own. Additionally, the exact terms of Columbia’s agreement with Hanban should be made open to the public. If they cannot do these simple tasks, the University will strengthen the suspicion that they actually have something to hide. [Source]

At Politico, Ethan Epstein looks at how Confucius Institutes serve to further Beijing’s overseas propaganda initiative by filling an unmet funding need within the American education system

 Hanban has been shrewd in compelling universities to host Confucius Institutes. Marshall Sahlins, a retired University of Chicago anthropologist and author of the 2014 pamphlet Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, reports that each Confucius Institute comes with “$100,000 … in start up costs provided by Hanban, with annual payments of the like over a five-year period, and instruction subsidized as well, including the air fares and salaries of the teachers provided from China. … Hanban also agrees to send textbooks, videos, and other classroom materials for these courses—materials that are often welcome in institutions without an important China studies program of their own.” And each Confucius Institute typically partners with a Chinese university.

They’re kind of like restaurant franchises: Open the kit, and you’re in business. American universities can continue to collect full tuition from their students while essentially outsourcing instruction in Chinese. In other words, it’s free money for the . At many (though not all) Confucius-hosting campuses, students can receive course credit for classes completed at the institute.

[…] Lincoln, of the University of Chicago, says the institutes have proved successful, in a sense, because Hanban offers a “cheap way to teach classes that [otherwise] wouldn’t have been taught.” Public universities have suffered punishing funding cuts over the past decade: “A decade since the Great Recession hit, state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels, despite recent increases,” reads a recent report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. According to the Center, adjusting for inflation, public spending on community colleges and universities was about $9 billion below 2008 levels in 2017. It’s unsurprising, then, that many institutes have sprung up at public universities, or that a huge amount of growth occurred from 2010 to 2012, when budgets were particularly hard hit. But those conditions could return: President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would also severely slash funding for universities, likely pushing more schools to outsource programs.[Source]

The Chinese government has announced plans to reform the Confucius Institute system in order to, “make the language and cultural teaching facility better serve Chinese diplomacy.”

As a part of the debate around the influence of Chinese money in American universities, the University of Texas in Austin recently refused to accept money from the China United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based foundation with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

In addition to shaping discussions in classrooms overseas, the Chinese government has also mounted an offense to keep Chinese international students under check. Eric Fish at SupChina reports that Chinese students studying abroad have received warnings from their home government for voicing their opinions on issues deemed taboo by the Communist Party. Last month, a Chinese student studying at the University of British Columbia in Canada received calls from Chinese government officials urging him to clean up his social media posts after he uploaded an image of the Tibetan flag on Twitter.  From Fish’s report:

The scope of these operations is difficult to determine, but professors at universities around the world have recounted instances of students reporting back to higher officials on the activities of their classmates and lecturers — sometimes under duress. Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, recalled having had multiple students apply to be his research assistant, only to later discover that they were acting at the behest of Chinese consular officials. He also knows that his lectures — and what Chinese students say in them — have been monitored. “I’ve had students suddenly been given warnings by Chinese officials about me or things they’ve said in class,” he says. “In one case, it happened within a few hours of it being said.”

Sally Sargeson, an associate professor at Australian National University who teaches courses in Chinese politics, says multiple Chinese students have expressed fears of this happening to them. “I had a student in tears in my office saying that she dare not speak up in class,” Sargeson says. “Other students I know of have had parents in China contacted by public security, invited to come have tea, and told they need to keep their child in Australia in line.”

Chinese Students and Scholars Associations — campus groups that predominantly organize social activities and practical assistance for students — are a natural attraction for many new arrivals transitioning to life abroad. Recently, though, they’ve come under scrutiny for some chapters’ murky ties to Chinese consulates and attempts to shut down activities critical of Communist Party interests. Last year at England’s Durham University, the CSSA and Chinese Embassy in London teamed up to try blocking an event featuring a Falun Gong–practicing beauty queen who’s been outspoken against the Communist Party. Later in the year, a student journalist at the Australian National University reported that he was followed and intimidated by CSSA members while covering an “I love China 2.0” National Day gala organized by the CSSA and funded by the Chinese Embassy. [Source]

But journalist Wang Feng, who has studied abroad, cautioned against painting all CSSA members with too broad a brush in response to such concerns:

For another perspective on Chinese students studying abroad, see “Thinking about Chinese student experience” by Jonathan Sullivan at China Policy Institute: Analysis.