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Inaugural ceremony for Confucius Institute at U. of Southern Maine

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The debate about whether North American colleges should host Confucius Institutes – centers for Chinese language and culture study funded by an entity of the Chinese government – has intensified in recent weeks. About 90 American universities and eight Canadian higher education institutions house Confucius Institutes, which are run in collaboration with Chinese partner universities and staffed, in part, by visiting language instructors hired by Hanban, the Chinese government agency that oversees the Confucius Institutes as well as a parallel program at the K-12 level, the Confucius Classrooms. Hanban also supplies Confucius Institutes with Chinese language textbooks and teaching materials.

Confucius Institutes, which have sprung up at hundreds of university campuses around the globe since the program’s launch in 2004, have been controversial almost from the start. The resources they have provided to expand Chinese language teaching worldwide have been widely welcomed, but their rapid expansion has raised concerns about whether universities have entered into arrangements that could compromise their academic integrity and independence.

Critics have asked whether universities should be lending their imprimaturs to institutes sponsored by a foreign government – and an autocratic one at that. The Confucius Institutes have often been likened to other foreign government outposts that promote language learning and positive, benign views of their respective cultures -- notably the British Institute, the Alliance Françaises and Germany’s Goethe Institutes – but the major difference, as critics of Confucius Institutes regularly point out, is that these other entities are not housed in universities.

In June, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement asserting that “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” The AAUP called on American universities to cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes unless they can renegotiate their agreements to ensure they have "unilateral control" over all academic matters -- including recruitment of instructors, determination of the curriculum and selection of texts -- and academic freedom for the Confucius Institute instructors.  The statement also called for universities to make their agreements with Hanban public.  

At least one institution, the University of Chicago, is currently renegotiating its Confucius Institute contract amid widespread faculty concerns about Hanban’s role in the hiring and training of instructional staff. 

Outside higher education, at the K-12 level, the Toronto District School Board voted in June to delay any programming related to its Confucius Institute after parents and community members protested Chinese government influence in Canadian schools. The Globe and Mail reported last week that board members have asked staff to research their options for dissolving the institute, which was to begin offering Mandarin classes to the district’s elementary school students this fall. 

The AAUP Statement

The recent AAUP statement follows on a similar one from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), from December, which was even stronger in unequivocally urging the country’s universities to sever their ties with Confucius Institutes: “Simply put, Confucius Institutes are owned and operated by an authoritarian government and beholden to its politics,” the CAUT’s then executive director, James Turk, said at the time.

Henry Reichman, the chair of the AAUP committee that wrote the Confucius Institute statement and a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay, said the Canadian statement got the topic on the AAUP’s radar screen, as did a long, highly critical article on Confucius Institutes that appeared last November in The Nation. The article, by the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, is footnoted in the AAUP’s statement.

In that article and elsewhere, Sahlins has identified a series of incidents that he argues provide reason to be concerned about censorship, discriminatory hiring and other infringements on academic integrity at institutions with Confucius Institutes. In a variety of interviews and media reports, Confucius Institute administrators have said that they do not see it as their charge to do programming on politically taboo topics in China like Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square (see, as just one example, this Oregonian article from 2011) and it’s been reported that the Hanban-hired instructors are trained to divert students away from these topics in the language classroom. One former Confucius Institute instructor at Ontario’s McMaster University who said she was trained in this way filed a human rights complaint saying that the Canadian university was “giving legitimization to discrimination” because her contract with Hanban prohibited her participation in Falun Gong; McMaster has since closed its Confucius Institute due to concerns about its Chinese partner’s hiring practices. 

The North American Hanban office did not return requests for an interview about the AAUP statement.  However, an article in Chinese state media panned it as xenophobic and intended to smear the Communist Party of China: “The great Chinese sage Confucius might have pardoned the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for their criticism of Confucius Institutes might come from either fear of other cultures or ignorance -- or both,” the article, in Xinhua, said.

"The shaping of traditional Chinese culture in the past thousands of years hardly has any direct relations with communism or its ideology, and those seeking to stem Confucius Institutes as disseminators of world culture are trying to hold back a pure form of human communication."

Reichman stressed that the AAUP’s concern is not with the Chinese government – “they are doing what they’re doing” – but with American universities.  “An academic program or institute in the United States needs to be governed by American standards of academic freedom,” he said.

Edward A. McCord, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University who helped negotiate the Confucius Institute contract there, takes issue with the AAUP statement and its assertion that “Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.” It’s true that many of the agreements are confidential, he said, but he questioned the factual basis for the statement that “most” agreements include such concessions.

McCord believes there are many misconceptions about the ways Confucius Institutes work. The CI boards tend to have 50-50 representation from the American university and its Chinese partner university, and an American director and Chinese co-director. “There’s no way that our CI is getting orders from Hanban and then carrying things out,” he said. “What we decide to do with the CI is our decision, the director is our dean, and from the other side the subordinate director comes from our partner university, Nanjing [University]: this is not someone appointed by Hanban to our CI,” he said.

“We can do what we want, essentially, but I don’t think we think that doing a whole series of political programs is an appropriate thing for a language and cultural program. Does that mean we don’t want to do those things? No, we do it elsewhere in the university where it’s appropriate,” said McCord, who’s an expert on Taiwan.

In a way, McCord said, Confucius Institutes can't win. If they avoid controversial political topics they’re accused of censorship or self-censorship. However, if Confucius Institute instructors or administrators express political views in line with Chinese government positions they’re liable to be condemned for spreading propaganda. McCord stressed that the CI instructors’ own academic freedom to determine the appropriate topics of discussion for their classrooms must be respected. Many of the language instructors are young, he said, and having grown up in China, they simply aren’t comfortable talking about politics.

Others point out, however, that politically charged topics come up naturally in the language classroom. “If you compare it with other language training programs, you do get into these things,” said the AAUP’s Reichman. “Could you imagine a class in Arabic today where people could not discuss the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or could not discuss the question of Sharia law or the Sunni-Shite division? To discuss language and cultural instruction in China without discussing China’s unique political system and the questions that arise, it would seem strange to me."

Reichman said he would no more wish to say that a Confucius Institute must sponsor a public program on Tibet than he would say that they shouldn’t address the subject. But he does think that as institutes at North American universities it’s important that they be free to cover Tibet (and any other hot-button topic they might choose) as it arises as part of their educational mission.

“We have never argued in the AAUP, and I hope never will, that all public programming in the university has to somehow be balanced -- this notion that you can’t have one point of view unless you have the opposing point of view somewhere. In that sense the Confucius institutes have the right to choose the programming they want to choose,” he said. “However, if there are guidelines -- most egregiously written guidelines, but even if they’re unwritten guidelines -- that basically say these points of view are off-limits, that’s a problem.”

A Narrow Mandate or a Smaller Picture?

Some of the debate over CIs hinges on just how narrowly you define their mandate. McCord emphasizes that they focus on language and culture, with culture quite narrowly defined as traditional (rather than contemporary) culture. Individual Confucius Institutes might focus, say, on Chinese opera or classical poetry.

"Each Confucius institute has its unique character,” said Tan Ye, a professor of comparative theater and the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of South Carolina. “Mine is about Chinese films: we collect films, so I’ve been busy with cataloguing and restoring film reels and translating. That’s my business.”

The Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland at College Park is, like many Confucius Institutes at public universities, focused largely on K-12 outreach and support for Chinese language teacher training. “I think having AAUP come out this strongly certainly does get your attention,” said Donna L. Wiseman, the Confucius Institute director and dean of Maryland’s College of Education. “But one of the things that I think about the Confucius institutes is that each of them is very different, in very different contexts, and I think these concerns may apply in some contexts and not in some others.” For example she said the issues regarding control of the curriculum are different in cases where Confucius Institute instructors teach non-credit classes and in K-12 settings (as in Maryland’s case), as opposed to cases in which they teach credit-bearing Chinese language courses.

“This is only a very, very tiny sliver of the campus’s entire Chinese initiative,” Wiseman said. “Campuswide more broadly of course we’ve got a variety of lectures and performances and debates and of course we have many Chinese professors who are not impacted, I don’t see how they could be impacted, by the CI in any way.”

A number of prominent scholars recently weighed in on the propriety and role of Confucius Institutes on campuses in a discussion published by the Asia Society’s ChinaFile blog. As part of a broader critique of the AAUP statement, Stephen E. Hanson, the vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary, similarly emphasized that one point that is often lost in these discussions is “that Confucius Institutes are just one aspect of any university’s wider programs on China, East Asia, and international affairs.”

“Lectures and conferences on such subjects as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the status of Tibet and Taiwan, or the legitimacy of groups such as Falun Gong take place all the time on our campuses — just not with direct Hanban funding. And this seems like a quite reasonable arrangement: it allows universities to take advantage of Hanban’s generous support for expansion of programs on Chinese language and culture, without restricting freedom of inquiry for our scholars and students to investigate potentially sensitive political and historical topics,” Hanson wrote.

In another contribution to the ChinaFile discussion, Alan R. Kluver, the executive director of global partnerships and projects and an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, wrote, “I would like to contribute respectfully to this debate by going to the heart of the argument: does Hanban inappropriately limit, either by proscription or staffing, the discussion of sensitive political discussions? There is little doubt that China’s government wants the CI movement to enhance its ‘soft power,’ but just because Beijing wants that to happen doesn’t make it true. Only in the most general sense could this possibly be true, in that as people learn Chinese, they are able to access more information about China itself, as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other Chinese language communities. Unthinking criticism of the CI as an ‘instrument of the Chinese state’ reflects a shallow sense of causation; namely, that by offering Chinese language classes without concomitant and constant criticism of China’s government, U.S. universities have 'bought into' China’s nefarious schemes for global dominance.”

Kluver wrote that his university's Confucius Institute has in fact hosted events on such topics as Taiwan, economic growth and stagnation, and ("yes, believe it or not") Tiananmen. But others participating in the ChinaFile discussion raised concerns about the risk of self-censorship and the narrowing of the scope of inquiry. The China scholar and Princeton University emeritus professor Perry Link observed that the visiting Chinese instructors are not able to voice positions critical of their government -- even if they might wish to -- without risking potentially steep penalties.

And of his colleague Steven I. Levine's largely futile attempt to prevail upon Confucius Institutes to offer programming on Tiananmen, Link wrote“I will not be persuaded by an objection that says the June Fourth example is an extreme, and therefore negligible, case, and that there are plenty of other things to talk about in bustling Big China. I will not be persuaded because, if we rule out not just June Fourth but all the other 'sensitive' issues -- Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, Occupy Central, the Nobel Peace Prize, the spectacular private wealth of leaders’ families, the cynical arrests of rights advocates and sometimes their deaths in prisons, and more -- we are left with a picture of China that is not only smaller than the whole but crucially different in nature.”

Levine, who coordinated an awareness campaign known as the Tiananmen Initiative Project, said he recently wrote to more than 200 Confucius Institutes asking that they mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with a public event of some kind, only to receive one positive response. A retired history professor at the University of Montana who helped establish the Confucius Institute there, Levine said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that what he has since come to realize is that institutes such as Montana's “were presenting a false view of what the Chinese state was really about. It’s not just pandas and chopsticks; this was a repressive regime.”

Levine recalled how Montana’s CI once sponsored a booth at the state fair in which they taught passersby how to pick up gummy bears and M&Ms with chopsticks and handed out “chopsticks proficiency certificates.”

“A good time was had by all” Levine said, but it occurred to him later that “what we were doing really is acting as entertainment specialists, if you will, for an agency of the Chinese government.”

Confucius Institute at Chicago

As the Confucius Institute debates continue, many are watching the case of the University of Chicago closely. Chicago’s Confucius Institute primarily functions as a research institute, but it also has three visiting language instructors who teach credit-bearing classes in the East Asian languages department.

More than 100 faculty members signed a petition last spring calling for the termination of the university’s contract with Hanban. The petition raised concerns about “the dubious practice of allowing an external institution to staff academic courses within the University” and stipulated that “[a]mong the problems posed by Hanban’s control of the hiring and training of teachers is that that it thus subjects the University’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China.” (In an interview with Inside Higher Ed in May, a former chair of the East Asian languages department emphasized that departmental faculty interview and vote on the hires proposed by Hanban, and that the instructors teach in the regular Chinese language program under the supervision of and using the materials of the department). 

Chicago's current contract with Hanban expires Sept. 29. An ad hoc committee of three Chicago faculty members charged with evaluating the Confucius Institute issued a report advocating for renewal of the contract for another five-year term, “but only if some serious changes are made.” Among the most significant of the changes the committee proposed: making explicit that Hanban does not have a line item veto over the Confucius Institute’s annual budget requests and replacing the three instructors hired through the Confucius Institute and Hanban with instructors hired directly by the East Asian languages department.

“We found no reason to share the concern that U of C had lost control of its language program to an outside entity,” the committee members wrote, noting that they had confidence in both the sources from which the instructors are drawn and in their training and supervision once they arrived on campus. However, the report describes a high administrative and supervisory burden on the East Asian languages department in regards to the visiting instructors and concludes that “a permanently renewable and adequately large group of locally hired, trained, and supervised Chinese language instructors would be preferable to these temporary, ‘outsourced' teachers.”

The committee found, in short, that the use of "outsourced" language instructors "is often more trouble than it is worth."

Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at Chicago and an organizer of the anti-Confucius Institute petition drive, said that in a Faculty Council meeting in which this issue was discussed the chair of the committee backed away from the recommendation on language teaching. Asked about whether she stood by the recommendation, the committee chair, Judith B. Farquhar, the Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences, said via email, “The committee report is the committee's report. I personally don’t see any particular problems with continuing to accept teachers from the Hanban, with or without a CI agreement covering their appointment.  Apparently those we’ve had have been very effective and much appreciated by students. The committee was impressed with what seemed to be extra trouble for the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, but that situation could be easily improved; and we did not think that there are any problems of principle involved in staffing some of our Chinese languages classes with well-supervised professional language teachers from China, chosen from a Hanban list.”

The director of Chicago’s Confucius Institute, Dali Yang, declined an interview request for this article and a Chicago spokesman, Jeremy Manier, said that the university provost and chair of the CI’s board of directors were not available for interviews. In a written statement the university confirmed that it is in the process of negotiating a new agreement, though Manier declined to answer questions about the specifics of the discussions: "The University of Chicago and the Confucius Institute have begun discussions about a new agreement,” the university statement said. “As always, the University is guided by its core academic values, and in this case, by the faculty leadership in the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago. We hope to have more to share later this summer."

Lincoln believes the AAUP statement may have had an impact on the administration’s thinking. “I think that transformed this from a local debate in which people they didn’t really like were telling them something they didn’t want to hear, to something that was part of a major national issue,” he said.

“The changes they’ll make [to the contract] will probably be improvements,” Lincoln said. “I’d prefer to see the whole thing terminated – and I don’t think that’s likely – but if they’re negotiating they’re at least trying to make some improvements. How far they’ll go it remains to be seen.”

Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology emeritus and the author of the influential Nation article on Confucius Institutes, described the AAUP statement as “a turning point in the acceptability of this.” The CIs and the many hundreds of K-12 Confucius Classrooms that are already in existence likely won’t be going away any time soon, he said, “but I think it might change the momentum. I think it might slow it down and some places might opt out.”

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