‘Reforming’ Confucius Institutes

With all the concern over the effect of Russian propaganda on American voters, it might be helpful now to recall that Russia isn’t the only nation trying to influence public opinion and create chaos in America. China remains a threat, too.

Of course, when China’s propagandists face criticism, they seem to have only one response: more propaganda.

Recently Xinhua News, the official press agency of the Chinese government, announced that Confucius Institutes would undergo a series of “reforms.” Confucius Institutes, as I noted at American Greatness last year, are teaching and research centers sprinkled across hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere. They have sparked significant backlash—not least because of their direct funding and control by the Chinese government.

Among the chief concerns is China’s censorship of its own history (Tiananmen Square? What’s that?) and its insistence on vetting all curricula. To ensure that instructors don’t stray from the approved text, China also staffs the Confucius Institutes with teachers it selects, trains, and pays. A Chinese government agency, the Hanban, provides textbooks plus additional operating funds to sweeten the deal for college administrators.

The only appropriate response to such inappropriate interference is to reject China’s overtures. The University of Chicago did so in 2014, when it shut down its Confucius Institute. The University of Texas at Austin, which recently rebuffed a funding offer from a foundation closely connected to the Chinese Communist Party, also deserves commendation. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has encouraged Florida Confucius Institutes and classrooms to close down, and in response, one at the University of West Florida announced its plans to shutter.

China is aware of growing criticisms. China’s Global Times, reporting on new “reforms,” observes, “The Confucius Institute is facing challenges overseas especially in the West.” It blames these “challenges” on Westerners’ tendency to “misconstrue” the Institutes “as a religious organization sponsored by the Chinese government.”  It insists that “in fact, [Confucius Institutes are] just for language teaching and cultural exchanges.”

In fact, they are not just for language teaching and cultural exchanges. I completed a study of 12 Confucius Institutes in the United States and concluded the Chinese government uses the institutes to shape students’ perceptions of China, build soft power, and intimidate American scholars into keeping quiet about China’s sub-par human rights record. In their less guarded moments, Chinese officials admit this. Li Changchun, former head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

Nevertheless, Ma Jianfei, a deputy executive of China’s Confucius Institute Headquarters, is preparing to give Confucius Institutes a makeover. Far from permitting Confucius Institutes greater latitude to respect intellectual freedom, however, Ma’s plans would make Confucius Institutes only more insular and censorious.

The source of the plan highlights the intimate connection between Confucius Institutes and Chinese foreign diplomacy. The Global Times reports that President Xi Jinping presided over a meeting of the Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee where adoption of the reform plan was took place.It further notes, “Language education in other countries will surely serve the country’s diplomacy.”

Ma says the plan is rooted in “improving the quality of education and systems” and “offering more innovating programs.” This bureaucratic jargon obfuscates China’s troublesome goals of building soft power.

What does the plan entail? For one, Ma calls for providing “strengthened support from China” to all “local faculty”—that is, say, the American professors who also have roles at their university’s Confucius Institute. That amounts to a warning: We are watching you. China already sends everything from the textbooks and course maps to the logo decals for the front door and office decorations. The Chinese government regulates every aspect of each Confucius Institute.  American universities do not need more “support” from China. They need freedom.  

For another, Ma intends that going forward, “More Chinese deans and teachers will be employed overseas.” There is nothing wrong with American colleges hosting guest professors and participating in educational exchanges, to be sure. But Confucius Institutes are already staffed almost entirely by teachers selected by the Chinese government. Every Confucius Institute also has a “Chinese co-director,” a high-ranking professor or administrator from a Chinese university who helps oversee all operations and reports back to China. If China’s only interest is in promoting the study of Chinese language and culture, why not send strings-free funds to American universities and let them select promising American scholars of Chinese to employ?

Unfortunately for Ma, his reform efforts may be too late. University of Massachusetts, Boston’s Confucius Institute is under protest right now. Congress is considering various efforts to rein in improper interference in American higher education. Many scholars and their researchs—ranging from University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to the American Association of University Professors to my own research for the National Association of Scholars—have concluded that Confucius Institutes jeopardize academic freedom, compromise the quality of students’ educations, and skew American scholarship towards a conciliatory foreign policy with China according to Chinese designs.

It is time for Confucius Institutes to close. Host universities should shut them down. Congress should take up legislation to increase transparency and oversight. Students should be wary and shy away from Confucius Institute classes. Don’t fall for China’s “reform” efforts.

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About Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars and the author of "Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education."