Chapter 1: “So what is a Confucius Institute?” 

Confucius Institutes are educational embassies offering free classes on Chinese language and culture.

They’re one of China’s many efforts to reinvent its image as a global leader. Following its “century of humiliation” in international relations, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spent billions of dollars on propaganda dealing with what it considers the “China Threat Theory,” the idea that foreign entities are wary of China’s behaviors and practices. Hanban, under the Ministry of Education — itself under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department — has opened more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. The first Institute opened in South Korea in 2004. Today, more than 500 CIs operate on every continent. At their peak, North America alone had over 100. 

These places usually take the form of cultural learning centers, with mission statements avidly written to strengthen diplomatic ties between the host university and its Chinese equivalent. In the past, institutes have also been — for many universities — a beacon of foreign language education for students hungry to gain knowledge of the business world’s most prized linguistic alternative — without fearing repercussions against their G.P.A. Confucius Institutes do have a valid role to play; like it or not, Mandarin Chinese has replaced Spanish, German or Japanese as the language of the future

Yet in the past five years, 33 Confucius Institutes have been closed by American universities due to a combination of internal and governmental pressures, according to data collected by the National Association of Scholars, a nonprofit dedicated to education reform. Recent activities have strained Chinese-American relations, including the theft of scientific research at major universities, driving Congress to re-assess the role of Confucius Institutes at major American universities. 

The question here is whether or not the Confucius Institutes actively pollute the free exchange of ideas at major American universities. 

Advocates against the presence of these Chinese-funded language and culture institutions on American campuses fear they are playing a vital role in the spread of regime propaganda overseas, influencing university curricula and monitoring students. Proponents feel the institutions have become an unfair victim, politicized in the eyes of the American government, and pushed into the role of political collateral in the United States’ ongoing trade tensions with the world’s second-largest economy.

Some experts in the field have argued the conclusion is invalid and Confucius Institutes have become political collateral amid rising tensions between the United States and China in the realms of technology, research and trade. Similarly, individuals like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is upset over Chinese trade practices, see the crackdown on Confucius Institutes as an opportunity to pressure China to provide transparency on their international outreach efforts. 

Complicating the situation, if universities choose not to close down their institutes, as many already have, they may be sacrificing funding from the U.S. Defense Department for their Chinese language programs. However, for those who never had that funding in the first place, sponsorship from Hanban is necessary to continue programs that offer American college students an education in Chinese culture and language. Universities may also risk a blow to their reputations due to anti-Chinese sentiment among legislative officials if they decide not to proceed with closures.

An amendment to the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, signed into effect by President Trump in Aug. 2018, forced American universities into an uncomfortable spot: Take money from the Pentagon or Hanban, but not both.

Hanban’s role in the construction of Confucius Institutes is relatively economical. It provides funding, teachers and teaching materials while a board, consisting of members from the U.S. university and its partner Chinese school, manages its operations. The concern lies in Hanban’s insistence that all institutes must abide by its problematic constitution. 

Congress has criticized Confucius Institutes as an outpost for the Chinese government to recruit spies or monitor Chinese nationals. Government officials have also reached the consensus that the Chinese government is carrying out an extensive spying campaign on the United States, targeting institutions of higher education — particularly in the fields of science and technology. The FBI has urged universities to monitor students and scholars who are associated with Chinese state-affiliated research institutions. 

In February, a report by a Senate sub-committee investigating China’s impact on the U.S. education system found widespread financial underreporting by colleges and universities hosting them, citing a lack of transparency and a threat to academic freedom. It also questioned a practice common in U.S.-China relations: balance, the idea the United States was providing China with so much but gaining little in return. 

Miami Dade College and the University of Delaware are the latest universities to close down their institutes — the former under immense pressure from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“The Communist Chinese government’s attempts to influence academic institutions and thwart critical analysis of China’s past and present policies is just one part of their aggressive campaign to stifle free speech and censor information both here at home and abroad,” said Rubio in a press release.

Confucius Institutes have also fallen under scrutiny for excluding topics such as Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan from classes, although many proponents, including the executive director of the program, Gao Qing, have argued this exclusion falls within the institutes’ goal to remain apolitical. However, critics have argued a push towards a politically neutral territory creates a foggy picture of contemporary China akin to the nationalist brand of propaganda commonly found on the mainland. 

All of this is to say, yes, based on bureaucratic research and Congressional logic, there is some reason to be concerned with Confucius Institutes — with the truth muddied by a healthy dose of Chinese paranoia reminiscent of McCarthyism.

Of course, these esoteric cases of Chinese behavior — Confucius Institutes, coronavirus secrecy or the genuine threat of American trade secrets being stolen by Chinese scientists — make it hard to trust a country that perhaps does not want to be trusted. After all, even my parents are scared of Chinese people from mainland China — and they’re Chinese!

However, perhaps these accusations are ignorant of the Confucius Institutes’ most important asset: language learning.

“CI`s have made positive contributions in many different countries and to many different kinds of institutions,” said Paul Evans, a professor of Asian and trans-Pacific International Relations at the University of British Columbia, by email. 

“They may be examples of public diplomacy, but their overwhelming focus is Chinese language, culture and civilization. The political content is real, but only a small part of the overall impact. It is too simple to frame them as some do as indoctrination centers and linked to espionage and surveillance activities.” 

One U.S. college following Evans’ line of thought is Tufts University, who recently announced it would renew its Confucius Institute last year. A memo on the university’s website said that although it could face “potential reputational risk,” there was no concern as to censorship or limits to academic freedom.

Chapter 2: Gaining insight

I was interested to know how actual people who attended Stony Brook’s Confucius Institute felt — if what they experienced lined up with my own initial assumptions. I also desired the opinions of experts. I contacted several faculty members from Stony Brook as well as other universities. 

What do Stony Brook students think?

Like many students at Stony Brook University passionate about learning Mandarin Chinese, Joshua Galardi once attended a Chinese language class hosted by the university’s Confucius Institute. 

“It may be somewhat ignorant of me in retrospect, but I did not really think twice about my interaction with them,” Galardi, a teaching assistant for the Asian studies department, said. “It was not until after the course that I learned of the controversy surrounding the program or that it was not a state-funded program. My experience with the program was a good one and I never felt any strong politics coming from the instructor or anyone I dealt with in the program.”

“We barely talked about political issues at all,” Rebecca Kranz, an undergraduate student who attended because she enjoyed learning new languages, said. “It was mostly focused on learning the language itself and not the culture.”

What do Stony Brook professors think?

Contrary to student experience, Jonathan Sanders, a journalism professor and leading critic of Stony Brook’s Confucius Institute, has questioned the exclusion of topics such as Hong Kong or the Xinjiang Uighur population — arguing this discrepancy prevents the Institutes from meeting the “high standards of intellectual debate in American universities.”

“We don’t support Nazi voices on campus. Look what the Standing Committee has done to the Uighurs, placing two million in re-education and brainwashing camps. It’s the same part of the Standing Committee responsible for that,” he said. 

Sanders first raised the question of institute interference at a Stony Brook University Senate meeting seven years ago, where he questioned the institute’s association with the Chinese government.

“The people that teach it are not approved by the faculty of Stony Brook. They serve a useful function, but ultimately it’s the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China that’s in charge here, not the faculty.”

Confucius Institutes have drawn comparisons to Germany’s Goethe Institutes or France’s Alliance Française. However, Sanders said, what separates the latter two is that Confucius Institutes operate directly under Hanban, the international arm of the Chinese Ministry of Education. 

Sanders’ sentiments were not shared by other members of the Stony Brook community.

“Given the deterioration in the overall relationships between the two countries, closure of a Confucius Institute is what I would regard as collateral damage,” one professor associated with the Stony Brook Confucius Institute, who wished not to be named for fear of retaliation, said.

Publications, such as a 2017 report written by the National Association of Scholars, have criticized Confucius Institutes for their lack of transparency and relationship with the Chinese government. 

“If what I have read is true, which I cannot prove, then the institute has no business exerting such pressure,” the anonymous professor said. “But with my interactions with the Confucius Institutes, I have yet to experience anything negative.”

Stony Brook University’s media relations office has not responded to any questions for this article.

In 2014, Sally Crimmins Villela, State University of New York’s (SUNY) assistant chancellor for global affairs, said all six SUNY contracts with the Confucius Institutes were public documents and in no way inhibited academic freedom.

“In U.S. higher education, we favor engagement with the world,” said Crimmins Villela, in an interview with the Ithaca Journal. “The openness of our education is our strength.” 

What do other professors think? 

“All they teach is language and culture; it is not political. Some schools cannot afford Chinese language instruction without this help,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Columbia University by email. 

According to Nathan, CI contracts forbid the organization’s funds to be used in the education of taboo topics such as Tibet or Taiwan. Exclusion of topics can affect smaller universities whose Chinese education program relies heavily on Hanban funding. However, for wealthy universities such as Nathan’s Columbia University, influence on an existing Chinese curriculum is practically nonexistent.

Nathan instead advocates that the contract Hanban signs should be made public, an opinion shared by some of the universities that shut down their institutes. This was also the sentiment shared by The American Council of Education, an organization representing American universities. In the summer of 2018, it urged presidents of universities hosting Confucius Institutes to make their finances and communications with Hanban public.

“Mainland China is, in fact, a ‘fascist’ regime with Chinese characteristics for the New Era, conducting an utterly unjustified, aggressive expansionist foreign policy,” said Jacob Kovalio, a professor of Chinese history at Carleton University. 

However, it remains unclear whether such an aggressive foreign policy will pay off, at least in the realm of higher education. Despite the opening of hundreds of Confucius Institutes from 2005 to 2017, research data indicates that the overall tone towards China has become more negative over time. 

“The Chinese side never has majority control over the management of the CI, so can never force schools to offer something they do not want,” said Edward McCord, editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies at George Washington University. “So, in general, I would say they ’add’ to our education on China.”

Professor McCord believes the controversies surrounding the institutes are derived from an anti-Chinese bias rather than rational arguments. He believes that although Confucius Institutes are an exercise in “soft power” on behalf of the Chinese government, he has rarely seen cases, especially among his students who take language classes, where individuals leave Confucius Institutes with a healthier opinion of the country.

For now, Stony Brook University continues to house its own Confucius Institute. As of today, there are no comprehensive arguments surrounding its existence compared to the external fervor that once enveloped the continued workings of Confucius Institutes around the United States. Nevertheless, the realm of higher education continues to remain vigilant as to what the People’s Republic of China — arguably the most important country of our now globalized age has in store for its Confucius Institutes.


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