Confucius Institutes: Hardly a Threat to Academic Freedoms
Image Credit: REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Confucius Institutes: Hardly a Threat to Academic Freedoms


One significant feature in U.S.-Chinese relations in recent years has been the establishment of Confucius Institutes in many American universities, where faculty from China provide instruction in Chinese language and offer programs on Chinese culture to American audiences. Just as some view China’s increasing global power with trepidation, many also see the spread of these institutes in an ominous light. One prominent example of such concern is an article written by the noted University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins for The Nation, where he expands on many of the standard criticisms of Confucius Institutes to argue that their establishment on American campuses represents a potentially significant threat to academic freedom.

The greatest problem with such criticism is that it often leaps from suspicions and concerns to a conclusion of fact. At most, a small number of anecdotal cases are repeated to support broader charges that the Confucius Institutes will have a deleterious impact on American academic life. There may have been a place for such concerns, and caution, when the first Confucius Institutes were established in 2003; but with nearly 100 now operating in the U.S. there is sufficient experience on which to evaluate how these organizations have interacted in practice with American academia. In the absence of reports of widespread problems or abuses, it seem that the main worries about Confucius Institutes have not been substantiated.

Detractors such as Sahlins often start with what they see as a damning revelation that although portrayed as an educational enterprise the Chinese body that oversees the organization of Confucius Institutes, abbreviated as “Hanban,” is in fact an instrument of the Chinese party-state. The scandal of this discovery is somewhat weakened, though, since the role of the Chinese state in Hanban’s governance is clearly stated in the “Constitution and By-laws of the Confucius Institutes,” a public document readily available on the Hanban website. It should come as no surprise that not just Hanban but all educational enterprises in Communist China operate under such state control. If one believes, perhaps out of antipathy to China’s authoritarian government, that no collaboration between American universities and Chinese educational organizations should be allowed, then this is an issue that could be debated. Meanwhile, numerous American universities have moved ahead in pursuing a wide range of joint programs with Chinese educational partners. In these cases, the main question for U.S. schools has been whether these programs can be arranged in way to produce mutual benefits for both parties without harming their academic mission (including academic freedom). The successful proliferation of such programs suggests a positive answer.

In the case of Confucius Institutes, however, detractors often point to confidentiality clauses in many, if not all, of their founding agreements to warn that special concessions to Chinese interests may have been made in violation of academic freedom (for instance, by giving Hanban control over the content of academic programs). The model for all such agreements, which is openly available on the Hanban website, gives no indication of such conditions. But might they still be hidden within individual “secret” agreements? Detractors such as Sahlins point to a section in early agreements, long since abandoned due to the objections of partnering universities, requiring acceptance of China’s “one China principle” (recognizing Taiwan as part of China). The public knowledge of this case, however, shows not only the extent to which the Chinese have been willing to accommodate themselves to foreign objections but how difficult it would be to keep such concessions secret. Even if one believes that some schools were less than diligent in crafting agreements that protected academic freedom, it is another thing to assume a vast conspiracy of silence by faculty and administrators across the country in nearly 100 institutions. More to the point, would efforts to constrain academic programming to fit Chinese interests go unnoticed? In the end, even Sahlins admits that “direct evidence of restraints on academic discourse is not easy to come by.”

Underlying the controversy over these agreements is the central concern held by many detractors that Confucius Institutes might act as beachheads for the spread of pro-Chinese propaganda into American universities. Saylins seeks to expose this intention by noting an oft-cited statement by Chinese Politburo member Li Changchun that the Confucius Institutes are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” To be fair, the Chinese term translated as “propaganda” (xuanchuan), just like the original usage of this term by the Catholic Church, has no negative connotation. More to the point, when this quote is examined in context, Li is clearly defining the role of Confucius Institutes in more limited soft power terms. Thus he notes, “The establishment of Confucius Institutes quickens the international popularization of the Chinese language and strengthens cultural exchanges with various peoples of the world, benefiting China’s to move toward the world and the world’s better understanding of China.” This statement does not, then, prove any hidden agenda to use Confucius Institutes as a tool for “political” propaganda.

Should cultural exchange programs sponsored by foreign states, in this case China, to cultivate soft power influence be a cause for alarm? Some might question whether such cultural programming alone ever translates into political influence. Even Sahlins admits that, “the current Chinese regime is a hard sell” given that the generally understood condition for soft power success is “the appearance of an attractive political system.” Indeed, despite the proliferation of Confucius Institutes in the U.S., the percentage of Americans with favorable views of China has actually declined by 5 percent over the past seven years. Thus it seems that the American public has no difficulty distinguishing between Chinese language and culture, aspects of which they may admire, and the nature of the Chinese Communist regime.

I suspect that most Americans (including most Confucius Institute detractors) would agree that in the end the teaching of Chinese language and culture is ultimately consistent with our core academic values and goals. This includes a humanities-based appreciation for cultural diversity, an area-studies perspective that seeks to build cross-cultural and transnational understanding, and, in the case of Chinese studies in particular, a purely pragmatic goal of preparing our citizens to deal with a global economy in which China plays an increasingly important role. There is, then, a congruence of interests that should provide a strong basis for collaboration in the establishment of Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institute detractors, however, still seem to fear that even language and culture instruction could be simply a Trojan horse for more offensive political content. Where is the evidence that this is happening? Sahlins notes that materials on the Hanban website continue to describe Taiwan as “China’s largest island” (forgetting perhaps that official U.S. policy does not dispute the contention that Taiwan is part of China). Sahlins also cites a 2008 case at the University of Waterloo (Canada), in which a Chinese Confucius Institute director used class time to challenge what he saw as biased Canadian reporting of Chinese political suppression in Tibet. The rarity of similar “scandals” in American universities, though, suggests that most Confucius Institute faculty actually avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes. In reality this may simply be that there is little reason for language teachers to raise political issues in their classes. In any case, the fear that Confucius Institutes were conceived with the intention to infiltrate the American academe with pro-Chinese propaganda hardly seems substantiated.

What is more troubling in arguments supposedly made in the defense of the freedom of speech, though, is the implication that some views, such as support for Chinese positions on Taiwan or Tibet, should not be allowed in our classrooms. One of the uncomfortable principles of academic freedom is that all viewpoints can be expressed. Is this principle to be withdrawn in the case of visiting Chinese professors? Or only when their views happen to coincide with the official line of the Chinese government?

In the absence of actual “propaganda” in Confucius Institute classrooms, Saylins and other detractors shift their main argument for the violation of academic freedom by Confucius Institutes away from what they do to what they don’t do. In particular Saylins notes that the Confucius Institutes generally fail to offer programming on controversial current issues such as Tibetan struggles for independence or the political status of Taiwan. But is the lack of such programming by Confucius Institutes really evidence of a restraint on academic freedom? There is of course a simpler explanation. Given the specific mission of the Confucius Institutes to provide language and cultural instruction, it would be inappropriate for them to engage in public programming focusing on contemporary political issues. More to the point, the failure of Confucius Institutes to offer such programming hardly prevents the coverage of such topics in other contexts on campus.

The vision of academic freedom supposedly promoted by Sahlins is, in the end, hardly very supportive of actual academic freedom. Any statement of support by Confucius Institute teachers as individuals for causes or policies at odds with the sympathies of the Confucius Institute detractors is somehow taken to be a threat to free expression. At the same time, censorship is defined not as actual suppression of free expression but as the failure of Confucius Institutes to engage in programming on political topics outside their narrow educational mandate. It is a no-win situation when Confucius Institutes are expected to offer events on Tibetan and Taiwan independence to prove they are not censoring such issues; but to offer counter perspectives supporting the PRC view is treated with suspicion as inappropriate propaganda.

For all my disagreement with Sahlins’ major arguments, he raises one legitimate concern: the problem of self-censorship. Chinese studies instruction and China-focused programming is not, and should not be, limited to Confucius Institutes. The full freedom of expression on American campuses remains the best inoculation against feared Chinese “propaganda.” There is, however, growing anecdotal evidence that some universities with Confucius Institutes have decided on their own not to hold events on topics seen as offending the Chinese, perhaps acting out of a misguided desire maintain Chinese financial support for their Institutes. This kind of self-censorship actually endangers the entire Confucius Institute program, though, by giving credence to detractors’ claims that the very existence of Confucius Institutes will ultimately undermine academic freedom. The right approach for universities hosting Confucius Institutes is to continue to provide space for the expression of all views. If an occasion arises where a direct demand is made for a university to censor some activity or face the loss of its Confucius Institute, then the obvious choice would be to accept the loss of the Confucius Institute. The chance of this happening is reduced, though, because the Confucius Institutes have been created on the foundation of mutual interests that are as important to the Chinese as they are to its foreign partners.

In the end, there is little evidence that the existence of Confucius Institutes threatens the robust atmosphere of academic freedom on U.S. campuses. The Chinese government may indeed hope that greater familiarity with Chinese language and culture will reap soft power benefits for their country; but the U.S. has traditionally also promoted international exchanges (such as the Fulbright programs) with a confidence that such exchanges will also deliver soft power benefits for the U.S. One might argue that the ability to bring so many Chinese teachers into our communities through Confucius Institutes, where they may observe U.S. society first hand, may ultimately serve U.S. interests more than the Chinese.

Edward A. McCord is associate professor of History and International Affairs, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and director of the Taiwan Education and Research Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. 

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