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Who Controls Confucius Institutes?

Two new government reports look at questions of Chinese government control over Confucius Institutes hosted by U.S. campuses.

February 28, 2019
 

China has directly provided more than $158 million to U.S. universities to host Confucius Institutes since 2006, according to a report from the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released in advance of a hearing on China’s impact on the U.S. educational system scheduled for this morning.

More than 90 U.S. universities host the CIs, which supporters say offer critical resources for foreign language learning at a time when such resources are hard to find. But they have not been uncontroversial.

At least 10 U.S. universities have moved to close their Confucius Institutes over the past year as scrutiny of the Chinese government-funded centers for language and cultural education has intensified and lawmakers from across the political spectrum have raised concerns about Chinese influence over American higher education. While faculty groups have been raising concerns about CIs for years -- the American Association of University Professors recommended in 2014 that universities either close their CIs or renegotiate their agreements to ensure “unilateral control” over all academic matters -- the recent closures follow on criticism from political figures, mainly but not exclusively from the Republican Party.

The Confucius Institutes are funded by a Chinese government entity known as Hanban, with matching resources provided by the host university. They are frequently directed by a faculty or staff member from the American host university with the help of an assistant director from a Chinese university and staffed in part by Chinese language instructors hired by Hanban or a Chinese partner university. Hanban typically provides textbooks and other curricular materials to CIs.

The bipartisan report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released late Wednesday afternoon raises a number of issues in relation to U.S. college or university control over CI hiring and programming.

It alleges that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools,” down to having veto authority over events and activities included in the annual budget submitted for approval to Hanban. The report also says that “Hanban provides no information to U.S. schools on how candidates for Chinese director and teacher positions at Confucius Institutes are screened or selected in China” and that U.S. colleges are therefore unable to judge if these practices are in accordance with their own hiring practices.

The subcommittee obtained a 2018 contract between Hanban and a Chinese instructor requiring the instructor to “conscientiously safeguard national interests.” The contract would terminate if the instructor were to “violate Chinese laws” or “engage in activities detrimental to national interest; participate in illegal organizations and engage in activities against local religions and customs, hence causing bad influences.”

The contract also would terminate if the instructor were to “refuse to follow the rules and regulations of the overseas work unit, Chinese Embassy, and Consulates and Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban.” The institution at which this instructor taught was not named in the report.

The report also finds that some contracts between U.S. universities and Hanban prohibit public disclosure of the contracts and include a provision stating that both Chinese and U.S. law applies to the CI. “When one U.S. school refused to include a provision requiring adherence to Chinese law, Hanban officials canceled the entire contract,” the report states.

Also of note, the report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations details problems with compliance with visa regulations, and says that in 2018 the State Department revoked 32 J-1 professor and research scholar visas for CI teachers who were found to be teaching in K-12 schools rather than conducting research (many CIs are focused on K-12 outreach and work with local schools to provide Chinese language instruction). The State Department also found evidence that one Chinese director of a CI “improperly coached the teachers to discuss their research during interviews with State Department investigators.”

A separate report from the Government Accountability Office on Confucius Institutes was also released Wednesday afternoon in advance of this morning's hearing. The GAO report, which is based on reviews of 90 written contracts between universities and Hanban and interviews with officials at 10 colleges chosen for a case study, is more measured in its assessment of Chinese government control over the CIs. It notes concerns from researchers that “the presence of an institute could constrain campus activities and classroom content.” But it says university officials interviewed for the study argued this was not the case.

“For example, officials at 10 case study schools told GAO that they do not use materials provided by Hanban for credit-bearing courses, and school officials stated that Hanban did not place limitations on events of any type,” the GAO report states. “Nonetheless, school officials, researchers and others suggested ways schools could improve institute management, such as by renegotiating agreements to clarify U.S. schools’ authority and making agreements publicly available.”

The GAO report includes additional analysis of the language in the contracts between host universities and Hanban.

Thirty of the 90 agreements reviewed by GAO included language relating to U.S. universities' polices or regulations: "Most of these agreements contained language about school policies that was not included in the sample template agreement that was posted on Hanban’s English-language website," GAO found. "For example, 10 agreements contained language indicating that U.S. school policies applied to the operation of the Confucius Institute and/or its activities."

"One agreement noted that the activities of the Confucius Institute would be conducted generally in accordance with the Confucius Institute constitution and bylaws, as well as the regulations, policies and practices of the U.S. school, cultural customs in the United States and China, and the laws and regulations of both countries," the GAO report continues. "However, this agreement also noted that the parties agreed that federal, state and local laws of the United States, as well as the U.S. school’s regulations, policies and practices (including principles such as academic freedom and nondiscrimination), would prevail in the event of a conflict. One agreement noted that nothing in the agreement shall be construed to limit the academic freedom of faculty or academic programs at the school. Sixty of the 90 agreements we reviewed did not contain explicit language about whether or how U.S. school policies, regulations or bylaws apply to the school’s Confucius Institute."

GAO found that 64 agreements had language saying "that institute activities would be conducted in accordance with the Confucius Institute constitution and bylaws," but also found that "some school officials we interviewed stated there had been no instance in which the constitution and bylaws had been invoked or conflicted with school policies." Another 42 agreements included confidentiality clauses.

"In our discussions with school officials and others, some offered suggestions to improve the content of agreements," the GAO report states. "One case study school official we interviewed stated that poorly negotiated agreements reflect negatively on all Confucius Institutes. A few case study school officials, researchers and others we interviewed stated that schools should include stronger language in the agreements to make it clearer that the U.S. school has executive decision-making authority. One case study school official and others we interviewed stated that schools should ensure the Confucius Institute director, an employee of the U.S. school, is the sole authority to make decisions over all institute activities."

Among other recommendations offered by college officials interviewed by GAO researchers, one administrator argued that universities should eliminate the Chinese assistant director position; this administrator said his college's CI "would never have a Chinese assistant director because the position suggests an excessive degree of Chinese influence." A few officials also recommended that the CIs should not be involved in teaching credit-bearing courses (the involvement or lack thereof of CIs in teaching credit-bearing courses varies across institutions). One suggested that the CI should physically be relocated to an external location off the campus.

Finally, officials from two of the universities in the case study "stated that schools should organize events through the institute specifically intended to address what some might perceive as a topic sensitive to Chinese interests to demonstrate the school and institute were not subject to undue Chinese influence."

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