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Amid increasing concerns that Western universities may stand to compromise their academic integrity in collaborating with the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, the reported censorship of conference materials at the recent European Association for Chinese Studies conference in Portugal has raised alarm

According to a detailed account posted on the EACS website, conference materials were seized and several pages removed from the conference program – including an advertisement for the Taiwan-based Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, a conference cosponsor -- after the chief executive of Confucius Institute Headquarters, Xu Lin, objected to the contents.

Certain costs of the EACS conference – including the printing of conference abstracts and the production of conference bags -- had been covered by a grant from the Confucius China Studies Program, which is administered by the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing (notably, the production of the conference programs was not among those costs covered by the grant and was paid for entirely out of members' conference fees). The application for conference funding from the Confucius China Studies Program included a provision stipulating that “The conference is regulated by the laws and decrees of both China and the host country, and will not carry out any activities which are deemed to be adverse to the social order.”

According to the EACS account, Sun Lam, a conference co-organizer and the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Minho, in Braga, Portugal, one of two conference locations, sent a draft of the conference program to the Confucius China Studies Program in early July for advance comment and had been informed by telephone that the program was “splendid” (Sun Lam and officials at Confucius Institute headquarters did not respond to interview requests). However, when the Confucius Institute Headquarters chief Xu Lin arrived at the conference the evening of July 22, she was shown the abstracts and program and objected that “there were some abstracts whose contents were contrary to Chinese regulations” and “ordered her entourage from the [Confucius Institute Headquarters] straight away to remove all the conference materials from the conference venue and take them to the apartment of one of the Chinese teachers employed at the Confucius Institute at the University of Minho.”  The more than 300 conference participants who registered on July 23 did not receive a program, unlike their approximately 100 colleagues who’d registered the day before.

Roger Greatrex, the president of EACS and director of the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Sweden’s Lund University, said he spoke briefly to Xu after the opening ceremony on the 23rd, at which point she said that at least two pages would need to be removed from the conference program. “She was quite adamant,” recalled Greatrex, who said his understanding was that Xu was distressed by a perceived lack of parity between the advertisements for the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Confucius China Studies Program and as a consequence wanted both advertisements removed. Greatrex, who said that he does not know what in particular​ in the conference abstracts Xu thought was contrary to Chinese regulations, said that before the conversation could be concluded Xu left for a meeting with Minho administrators (he estimated their discussion lasted perhaps 90 seconds).

Meanwhile the abstracts and programs were not in the conference organizers’ possession. According to the account on the EACS website (which is signed by Greatrex) the Confucius Institute Headquarters consented to the distribution of the conference abstracts after the removal of the first page, on which it was stated that the volume was produced with the support of the Confucius China Studies Program, and on the condition that all funding be returned. The conference program -- which the Confucius Institute had no role in funding – was distributed to conference participants on July 24th but with several pages removed: pages 15 and 16, which had information about the Confucius China Studies Program and local restaurants; pages 19-20, which included information on speakers and a book exhibition organized by the Taiwan National Central Library; and pages 59-60, which included the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation advertisement and logos of other sponsors, as well as information on activities in the second conference location in the city of Coimbra.

When he realized that pages had been torn and knifed out, Greatrex said he directed the printing of a full-color, double-sided reprinting of the pages including the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation advertisement, which was distributed to conference participants on the bus to Coimbra. He objected to what he perceived to be Xu’s interpretation that Confucius Institute sponsorship of the conference would mean that she “owned” the conference materials.

“The EACS standpoint is that conference support does not result in the 'ownership' of the conference or its materials (no matter how much or little support has been given) by any sponsor,” Greatrex wrote in a letter of protest. “Providing support to a conference does not give any sponsor the right to dictate parameters to academic topics or to limit open academic presentation and discussion, on the basis of political requirements.”

Greatrex said that this was the first year that EACS conference organizers had obtained Confucius Institute sponsorship. By contrast, Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation has a long history of sponsoring the conference and has never, Greatrex said, interfered with conference proceedings.

The incident has been described in the Taiwanese press as a blow to always-tense relations between China and Taiwan, which China considers to be its rightful territory. "The mainland should deal with Taiwan's participation in activities on international occasions pragmatically," Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement published by Focus Taiwan News Channel"If there is no respect for each other, the development of cross-strait relations will be seriously hurt."

Inside Higher Ed’s calls and emails to the Confucius Institute’s Beijing headquarters requesting an interview were not returned. At one point an official who identified herself only as "Wei" directed a reporter to call back later in the day; when the reporter did so, the phone rang unanswered.

The events in Portugal come at a time of increasing scrutiny for the Confucius Institute program, which in addition to providing funding for conferences and scholarly research sponsors hundreds of centers for Chinese language and culture instruction on university campuses around the world. In July, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement urging colleges to cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes or otherwise renegotiate their contracts to ensure the university's unilateral control over all academic matters and to protect academic freedom. Asserting that most agreements establishing Confucius institutes feature “unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China,” the AAUP statement continues, “Specifically, 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.” (Critics have frequently noted the relative absence of Confucius Institute programming on highly sensitive topics in China such as Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet.)

Marshall Sahlins, one of the leading critics of the Confucius Institutes and the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at the University of Chicago, said the incident brings to light the Confucius Institute’s seriousness in enforcing its contractual provisions stating that programming under its name must abide by Chinese laws and regulations – which would, he noted, encompass a wide range of restrictions on speech. 

“Moreover they’re going to enforce them the way they do in China which is not so much by going to court... but simply by fiat,” Sahlins said.


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