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There are presently upward of 100 Confucius Institutes embedded in American colleges and universities, and many more Confucius classrooms in American K-12 schools. Funded by the Chinese government, their activities commonly include courses in Chinese language and culture taught by personnel likewise supplied by the People’s Republic.
Although Hanban, the Beijing headquarters of the Confucius Institutes, commonly advertises itself as a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education, the instructional activities of which are devoted to promoting a harmonious multicultural world order, this is a benign disguise. Hanban is in fact controlled by high officials of the Chinese party-state implementing the policies of the PRC propaganda apparatus. The governing council of Hanban, which annually sets its agenda, has long been headed by a member of the Politburo. A number of its ranking officials, beside their high status in such ministries as foreign affairs, finance and national development, are members of so-called small leading groups of the Party’s propaganda and ideology sections -- which thus function as conduits for the realization of Politburo policies in the operations of Confucius Institutes. And insofar as Confucius Institutes and classrooms are installed in colleges and K-12 schools the world around, these educational institutions function as peripheral propaganda branches of the Chinese party-state.
The objectives of the Confucius Institutes are as old as the imperial era, likewise notable for its policies of aligning foreign powers with the geopolitical interests of the Middle Kingdom by spreading the forms and virtues of Chinese culture. Or as Li Changchun, then a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, put it in a speech at Hanban headquarters in 2011, the Confucius Institutes are an appealing brand for extending China's culture abroad and have made an important contribution toward improving its soft power. “The ‘Confucius brand’ has a natural attractiveness,” he said, “using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Again, in the words of then minister of propaganda Liu Yunshan in 2010, China should “coordinate the efforts of overseas and domestic propaganda, [and] further create a favorable international environment for us.” He went on to say that overseas propaganda should be “comprehensive, multilevel and wide-ranging … With regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong. Our strategy is to proactively take our culture abroad … We should do well in establishing overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”
Minister Liu thus offers a partial catalog of subjects to be discussed (or not) in certain ways by Confucius Institutes in foreign schools -- to which one could add the Tiananmen massacre, the Cultural Revolution, historical errors of the Chinese Communist Party, judicial independence, press freedom and others that indeed were officially banned in 2013 from the curricula of Chinese universities. One can easily foresee the possibilities of comparable censorship in American universities, given that the official constitution and bylaws of Confucius Institutes specify that the laws and regulations of both China and the United States are to be in force. But what is illegal by the Hanban constitution is typically a First Amendment right of the American one.
The effect is an endemic contradiction that condemns American institutions at the least to discriminatory hiring, since the Hanban determines the eligibility of the teachers it provides by, among other criteria, the applicants’ “political thinking” (zhengzhi sixiang) -- as demonstrated by the well-publicized controversy concerning Sonia Zhao, a Hanban teacher at McMaster University who could not hold her position because of her affiliation with Falun Gong.
By her contract with Hanban, Zhao was prohibited from joining “illegal organizations” such as Falun Gong. During her training in China, she was also instructed not to answer questions about Tibet and other sensitive topics. As she disclosed during the McMaster affair, “During the training … they do tell us: Don’t talk about this. If the student insists, you just try to change the topic, or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer.”
While it is common for directors of American Confucius Institutes to claim that they have experienced no infringements from Hanban on their academic freedom, the claim ignores that a great deal of it had already occurred before teachers, lecturers and other Chinese personnel of the institutes even got there. Hanban politically vets and trains the teachers. And in many cases, the whole curriculum of Chinese language or culture courses is shipped from China, textbooks, videos and all.
Then again, much of the censorship in the classroom or Confucius Institute programs is not manifest, insofar as it consists of what cannot be said. It is self-censorship. Among many similar instances, consider the exemplary case of Portland State University, whose institute director, Meiru Liu, in reply to a critical press report, said in 2011 that her CI had sponsored lectures on Tibet, “with emphasis on the beautiful scenery, customs and tourist interest.”
“We try not to organize and host lectures on certain issues related to Falun Gong, dissidents and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests,” she continued, because “these are not topics the Confucius Institutes headquarters would like to see organized by the institutes.”
Or as the provost of North Carolina State, Warwick Arden, commented in connection with the cancellation of a scheduled visit of the Dalai Lama, a Confucius Institute provides an opportunity “for subtle pressure and conflict.”
In the incipient cold war with China, however, the critical discourse has shifted from academic freedom to spying -- having been taken over from the academics and universities by conservative politicians and state security agencies. Responding to pressure from Texas congressmen, Texas A&M University recently shut down its Confucius Institute. Just this month, 41 Minnesota legislators sent a letter to two Minnesota universities asking them to terminate their Confucius Institutes -- a request all the more ominous insofar as these institutions are dependent on state funding. Also recently, the director of the FBI disclosed that the bureau had been monitoring Confucius Institutes and, in certain cases, had taken “investigative steps.” In an ironic turn, the American government now mimics the totalitarian regime of the PRC by dictating what can and cannot be taught in our own educational institutions.
The professors have no one to blame but themselves, as they failed to forestall the threat to free inquiry and free speech posed more than a decade ago by the establishment of Confucius Institutes in their midst. We are now in a pick-your-poison, lose-lose situation, with the inevitable effect of compromising the academic integrity of the university, either by keeping the Confucius Institutes or allowing the United States government to intervene in the curriculum.