Are Confucius Institutes Good for American Universities?

Are Confucius Institutes Good for American Universities?

ChinaFile, the online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society recently asked Lhadon Tethong, Tibet Action’s Director to weigh in on the question: Are Confucius Institutes Good for American Universities?

Here’s her response:

Confucius Institutes (CIs) undermine academic freedom and suppress discussion of human rights issues at college campuses and affiliated venues. They are a platform for the Chinese government to disseminate political propaganda that paints a misleading picture of China and core “sensitive” issues like Tibet and Taiwan, but under a veneer of academic credibility provided by the host institution.

This was the case at the University of Maryland when its Confucius Institute hosted a series of events, in 2009, aimed at glossing over China’s colonial policies in its western regions. At the opening of a photo exhibition on Tibet, Xie Feng, the deputy chief of the Chinese Embassy refuted claims of repression against Tibetans and criticized the Dalai Lama.

In spite of the oft-made comparison to Germany’s Goethe-Institut or France’s Alliance Francais, CIs are different in that they are embedded in our university campuses while being ultimately answerable to the Chinese government. The teachers are chosen and trained by Beijing and expected to provide pro-CCP versions of Chinese history and society, and their evasion, suppression and distortion of a host of topics Beijing does not like is well documented.

While some universities have negotiated more control over their Confucius Institutes, staff from China, critical operating funds, curriculum, textbooks, and overall program governance are controlled by Hanban, a state-run Chinese agency. The standard contract template, used by many universities, gives final academic control to China through a clause stating the university “must accept the assessment of [Hanban] on the teaching quality.” It also states CI activities must “not contravene the laws and regulations, both in the United States and China.”

Though they live and work in the U.S., the Chinese staff of Confucius Institutes under contract with Hanban are not free to teach, speak, or act in any way that is that is out of step with the official views of the Chinese Communist Party. Doing so would mean the loss of their jobs, and likely worse punishment upon their return to China. Take the case of Sonia Zhao, a Falun Gong practitioner who defected from the CI at McMaster University in Canada, in 2012, and successfully brought her case before Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal. Zhao’s contract stated she could not “not participate in any activities that harm the national interest of China,” nor could she “join Falun Gong and other illegal organizations.”

And while universities often claim they have full oversight of their Confucius Institutes, it is difficult for administrators who don’t understand Chinese to fully vet curriculum or monitor program staff. At Tufts University, administrators were unaware the CI’s Director and staff were trying to establish a Confucius Classroom at a local elementary school.

Considering all we know about Confucius Institutes, it is remarkable they are allowed to operate at American schools. Funds for Chinese language studies may be sparse, but that does not make it okay to enter into a partnership with an authoritarian government that subverts academic freedom and human rights. The price of hosting Confucius Institutes is too high – it is time to shut them down.

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