More than 300 colleges in more than 90 countries -- including about 70 institutions in the United States -- host Confucius Institutes, centers of Chinese language and culture education and research funded by China’s government. The infusion of Chinese government funding into international universities has enabled significant expansions in language teaching, cultural programming, and China-related conferences and symposiums, but it has also raised fears regarding academic freedom and independence of teaching and research. Critics have questioned why colleges would provide their imprimatur to institutes that have been described by Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, as "an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup."
"If we had a U.S. government agency that was stating that it was a tool for U.S. government propaganda, my colleagues would be up in arms about having a center like that on campus," said Anne-Marie Brady, associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. Brady, the editor of the recent volume, China’s Thought Management (Routledge, 2011), said the space for criticism and inquiry at overseas Confucius Institutes is similar to that which Chinese citizens navigate: "They’ve got a lot of space, but the same kind of space that people have in China, which is that there are always no-go zones, and the no-go zones are obvious: Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong. And academia does not have no-go zones."
Other scholars, however, describe the fears regarding Confucius Institutes as, in their experiences, unfounded. "We’ve not ever had the experience of anybody telling us, 'Oh, don’t talk about that,' or, 'This is a sensitive topic, avoid that,' and our position all along has been the minute that anybody does, we’re done," said Ken Hammond, a professor of history and co-director of the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State University – which has hosted speakers who have addressed such topics as the history of Tibet and the Nationalist evacuation to Taiwan in 1949. "I wouldn’t carry on a program where those constraints were placed upon me. That’s not what I do. That’s not why I got into this."
Outreach and Language
The first Confucius Institute in the United States was founded in 2004 at the University of Maryland at College Park. The expansion since then has been rapid: Columbia and Stanford Universities have Confucius Institutes, as do the Universities of Chicago and Michigan. Among the public universities with Confucius Institutes are the Universities of Alaska at Anchorage, Delaware, Hawaii at Manoa, Kansas, Massachusetts at Boston, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas at Dallas, Toledo, and Utah, as well as Middle Tennessee, Portland, Kennesaw, San Francisco, and Wayne State Universities. The State University of New York at Binghamton has a Confucius Institute dedicated to promoting Chinese opera. Some of the institutes are at universities with extensive programs and academic strength in Chinese studies, while others are not.
The Confucius Institutes are run in cooperation with Chinese partner universities and overseen by Hanban, a Chinese Ministry of Education subsidiary. Typically, host universities receive a yearly appropriation from Hanban -- in the range of $100,000 to $150,000 -- and Hanban also pays the salaries and travel costs for visiting Chinese instructors who staff the institutes. Hanban creates its own teaching materials.
The majority of Confucius Institutes focus primarily on language teaching and public outreach and programming. At New Mexico State, for example, the Confucius Institute is involved with outreach to local K-12 schools. The institute serves as a hub for 15 Chinese instructors – all of whom are funded by Hanban – who are teaching at nearby elementary, middle and high schools. The institute has also hosted conferences on the China-Mexico relationship and China in Africa. "New Mexico’s a poor state," said Hammond. "There’s not a lot of spare cash sloshing around here, but we’ve been able to do things academically in terms of programming and involvement with the public schools that we never would have been able to do without this."
At North Carolina State University, the Confucius Institute offers noncredit language and cooking classes for local residents, as well as a one-credit Chinese conversation course, intended to supplement the foreign language department’s offerings. The institute oversees three language teaching outposts, "Confucius Classrooms," at Central Carolina Community College, Saint Augustine’s College, and Enloe High School, in Raleigh. Additionally, the Confucius Institute organized a professional association for North Carolina Chinese teachers and has worked with the College of Education at North Carolina State to develop a licensure program for teaching Chinese.
In a way, it’s a one-stop China shop. "We’re known as a mini China center here in the region, so if corporations want somebody to talk to about doing business in China, they contact us," said Bailian Li, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Confucius Institute. "If the public school wants to have an Asia day or a Chinese culture day, they contact us, so we send a teacher or a student to do show and tell."
The language teaching and outreach model is most common, but as more prestigious universities have signed on with Hanban, research-oriented Confucius Institutes have also developed. Stanford University, which established its Confucius Institute in 2009, received a $4 million gift from Hanban -- matched by Stanford – to fund an endowed professorship in Sinology, graduate student fellowships, and collaborative programming with Peking University. Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said that during discussions of the gift, a Hanban official expressed concern that the endowed professor might discuss "politically sensitive things, such as Tibet."
"This is something that comes up in other discussions with other donors of endowed chairs, and I said what I always say, which is we don’t restrict the freedom of speech of our faculty, and that was the end of the discussion. I’ve had domestic donors walk away because of that, and in this case Hanban did not walk away.
"Given my experience, I don’t see any kind of insidious or subversive tone to this," Saller said. "I think there is a genuine interest in trying to reach the best American universities." He added that when he was provost at the University of Chicago the French government established the France Chicago Center with a million-dollar gift. "The consulate in Chicago was far more involved in trying to influence the nature of the programming for the purposes the French wanted to see, than Hanban has been for our program."
Academic Freedom and Soft Power
Objections to particular Confucius Institutes have emerged. For example, in 2010, 174 University of Chicago faculty members signed a letter that, among other things, objected to the establishment of a Confucius Institute in absence of Faculty Senate approval. The letter described the institute as "an academically and politically ambiguous initiative sponsored by the government of the People’s Republic of China," and asserted that, "Proceeding without due care to ensure the institute’s academic integrity, [the administration] has risked having the university’s reputation legitimate the spread of such Confucius Institutes in this country and beyond."
This past spring, the faculty union at the University of Manitoba raised objections to a proposed Confucius Institute for academic freedom reasons. "Materials and instructors for CIs are selected and controlled by a branch of the government of the People's Republic of China," said Cameron Morrill, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association. "It is inappropriate to allow any government, either foreign or domestic, control over a university classroom, regardless of how much money they offer."
The Canadian press also recently called attention to a provision in Hanban’s hiring practices that discriminates against teaching candidates with a "record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations." The bylaws of the Confucius Institutes stipulate that "they shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China."
Officials at Hanban did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Lionel M. Jensen, an associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures and a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, writes critically of the Confucius Institutes in the forthcoming book, China In and Beyond the Headlines (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012): "[S]o far there have not been any events in which the academic freedom of the host university was explicitly threatened by authorities of Hanban. Most directors have gone on record in this regard to affirm the independence of their institutes. This, though, does not mean that U.S. Confucius Institute directors do not take special care in arranging programming that is uncontroversial in the eyes of their benefactor. By this I mean that their mindfulness of the funding source has affected consideration of what is appropriate programming. At its worst, this amounts to a persistent self-censorship, a practice common to the political survival experience of Chinese citizens today."
In an interview, Jensen said his concerns about Confucius Institutes stem from the fact that, unlike other cultural institutes charged with promoting the study of language and culture of their countries, such as the Alliance Française, British Council, and the Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are distinct for being located within institutions of higher education. "That in itself is astonishing," he said.
Jensen also has concerns about the quality of culture and language education offered through the Confucius Institutes. As he writes, the diversity of China’s cultures has been reduced by Hanban to a "uniform, quaint commodity," characterized by Chinese opera and dance performances: "The term most appropriate for CI programming is 'culturetainment.' The concept gets at the abridgment of Chinese civilization in the name of digestible forms of cultural appeal that can be readily shipped overseas. To that extent, it is possible the Chinese-language education provided by CI will fall short of standard proficiency."
Scholars have characterized the Confucius Institutes as instruments of soft power, defined by the Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies." As James F. Paradise, a newly minted political science Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles who has published an article on Confucius Institutes and soft power, explained, "The Chinese government has a broader agenda, which is to project a benign image of China in the international community, and a convenient way to do this is to establish these Confucius Institutes."
"It’s not a bad thing to expose students to Chinese culture, but is it leading to an intrusion into American academic affairs?" Paradise asked. "I don’t know if I would put it in such crude terms. I think the exercise of influence happens in a much subtler way. This is an example of public diplomacy, which the U.S. has used for years. During the Cold War, there were American centers around the world."
However, Brady, of the University of Canterbury, returned to the point that the Confucius Institutes are located within universities – and even subsidized by them, in the form of matching funds and overhead costs. "What they’re promoting is a positive and benign image of Chinese society and Chinese political systems, and they are promoting Chinese language," she said. "They believe that if more people learn Chinese, they’ll have more positive feelings toward China. There’s nothing wrong with that. These are all similar activities as to what the British Council [for example] does, but the difference is that they’re in universities and universities help to subsidize them, and why would we do that?"
Sources of Funding
Confucius Institute directors counter that Hanban provides them with the funding necessary to pursue programming of significant educational value. The University of Oregon has a Confucius Institute that sponsors events and symposiums about China in a transnational context. Recent events include a lecture by a professor emeritus at Harvard on Deng Xiaoping, a folk music concert featuring musicians from the Central Music Conservancy, in Beijing, a panel discussion on Chinese foodways, and a symposium on China’s role in regulating the global information economy. Hanban does not set the agenda; the institute puts out a call for proposals for projects each year, and the proposals are vetted by a board of faculty and administrators. "Especially since there’s some suspicion of China and Chinese funding, we want to make sure that everything we do is desired locally," said Bryna Goodman, the director of Oregon’s Confucius Institute, a professor of history and director of Asian Studies. She said that the Confucius Institute sends an annual budget request to Hanban outlining the proposed projects; not once, she said, have Hanban officials raised any questions regarding the content of the programming proposed.
Goodman said that the funding from China provides a good counterbalance to other funding sources for China studies, including Taiwanese sources – such as the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange -- and U.S. government sources. "In terms of academic freedom, I would say the more sources you have the better, because you can go to different units to fund different things," she said.
"I would like a university that had enough independent funding so that everything could be independently funded, but that’s not how universities work."
The influx of Confucius Institute dollars comes at a time when U.S. government funding, specifically National Resource Center funding for area and language studies, has been slashed by 47 percent. Paul Jakov Smith, a professor of history and East Asian studies at Haverford College, said he worries that some of the fears surrounding the Confucius Institutes mask frustrations about the U.S.’s own disinvestment in language and culture study. "While I do worry about the strings that often seem attached to CI funding, I think some of the more general concern is generated by the frustration that we in the U.S. feel as our ability to fund our own academic projects is eroded by the economic downturn," he said. "Our national power and prestige are under pressure right now, and I worry that could fuel unproductive resentments against China."
The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for East Asian Studies is one of many National Resource Centers that’s taken the hit. "We, like everybody else, are always looking for more funding, and obviously when you lose funding you become more concerned about it," said Jacques deLisle, the Stephen A. Cozen professor of law and director of the center. The University of Pennsylvania previously rejected a proposed Confucius Institute that would have focused on K-12 outreach. "Personally, I think that proposal was too narrow and with the wrong kind of Chinese counterpart institution," deLisle said. Yet, deLisle said that while there are no active negotiations at this point, he is not closed to the possibility of pursuing a different sort of Confucius Institute. "I don’t think it’s fair to say that the reduction in federal funding triggered a sudden interest in the Confucius Institute or has transformed the likelihood that we will pursue one. But like every place that has not established one, or has made a firm decision not to establish one, we’re looking around."
"One wants to have all the information one can about what kinds of options there are and what strings are attached to them," deLisle said.
David Prager Branner, a Chinese lexicographer and adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, said it is a fallacy to believe that "taking money from the Chinese government will have no long-term consequences.
"Of course, many of our universities are strapped for funds and the whole economics of American higher education is in the midst of changing drastically, so it’s easy to look favorably on what seems to be a little easy money. At the same time, many universities have friendly relationships with institutions in China, so it’s understandable that their administrators hope to do things to please the Chinese government.
"But I think this is like taking out a subprime mortgage or buying everything on credit without paying off the full debt: it may seem like a good deal at first, but it will surely have consequences we may not be able to foresee at the outset. In order to try to anticipate those consequences we need to ask: why would China be willing to spend so much money to set these organizations up? Specifically, why does China consider this to be in its national interest and why would it be in America’s national interest?" Branner asked.
"I'm most concerned about what might happen in the long run," said Matthew Sommer, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford. "The program seems to be expanding exponentially in the United States and around the world, and inevitably it’s going to have an increasing influence on the way Chinese studies is taught in the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s not so much what might happen right now, but what might happen 15 years from now, or 20 years from now."