Confucius Institutes: cultural asset or campus threat?

China’s foothold in overseas universities is prompting fears over academic independence

In little more than a decade, a shadowy arm of the Chinese state has established a foothold in hundreds of university campuses across the world.

Confucius Institutes, named after China’s most famous philosopher, claim their mission is to satisfy overseas demand for learning Chinese. Located within host universities, the centres offer language and cultural classes that in many cases earn students credits towards their degrees.

But they are directly administered by Beijing and their rapid growth — the programme now has a presence in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries — is raising fears that Beijing is subverting traditional values of academic freedom as part of China’s global soft power push.

“The fundamental point is the interference in the education process of another country by a country which is used to suppressing academic freedom,” says one senior US professor whose desire to remain anonymous highlights the extent to which fear of offending Beijing is leading to creeping academic self-censorship overseas.

The Confucius Institute’s governing council is chaired by Liu Yandong, former head of the United Front Work Department, the party’s main organ for exerting influence overseas. The council’s other members are all senior party cadres.

photo of Confucius Institute
Label in front of the entrance of Confucius Institute in Kazan city in Russia

An investigation this year by the National Association of Scholars, a right-leaning US educational campaign group, recommended the immediate severing of universities’ ties with the institutes. Campuses made too many concessions to accept Institute funding, the report found, resulting in entanglement between the Institutes and host universities’ operations.

Such fears have already led several universities worldwide to close institutes on their campuses, including the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University in the US, Stockholm University, the University of Lyon and Canada’s McMaster University. But the vast majority remain.

The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004 and the network now numbers more than 500, along with over 1,000 Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary schools, in 142 countries worldwide. The programme’s presence is strongest in the US, China’s biggest strategic rival, which hosts more than 100 institutes.

The institutes are run by Hanban, an arm of China’s education ministry that oversees the hiring and training of teachers, who are not considered university employees and do not enjoy standard academic freedom protections. Their location on campuses, however, gives the impression that they are affiliated to the host university.

“The parallel nature of [the institutes] is obviously a problem,” says a professor at the University of Chicago, one of the 100 or so faculty staff behind a petition that severed the university’s agreement with Hanban in 2014. “They outsource teaching to a foreign government.”

The institutes have been seen as a boon for smaller, cash-strapped universities that may have cut language programmes and research funding. Hanban pays not only for the institutes’ operational costs and selects textbooks, it directly hires, trains and pays for Chinese language teachers.

With China footing the bill, critics say Confucius Institutes are ready-made platforms for the state’s agenda, promoting an overly rosy image of China while discouraging discussion of the “three Ts”: Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“Confucius Institutes are offices or extensions of the [Chinese] state,” says Sam Crane, political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.

The director of a Confucius Institute at one prestigious US university, who also asks not to be named, insists that any censorship is “unimaginable” — but concedes that the institute’s Chinese partners maintain close contact over its daily operations for logistical reasons.

“When we collect proposals from faculty, we have to submit them all to the institute headquarters,” he says, adding that because of a lack of time, a Chinese co-ordinator, usually a scholar themselves and hired by Hanban, prepares the documentation.

The push into US academia comes amid waning American student interest in China. The number of Americans studying in China peaked at 14,887 in the 2011-2012 academic year and had fallen 14 per cent to 12,790 by 2014-2015, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Institute for International Education.

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