American Universities Face a Confucius Institute Dilemma

How should U.S. universities evaluate the value of their Confucius Institutes?

American Universities Face a Confucius Institute Dilemma
Credit: © Copyright ronnie leask and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Confucius Institutes potentially pose a problem for many American universities. As state funding has dwindled, many institutions have grasped for outside support in order to retain co-curricular activities, and (in some cases) core curriculum.  The support of the Confucius Institutes has been critical to allowing many colleges and universities to maintain strong programs on one of the most important countries on earth. They have touched many aspects of campus life, involving students, administrators, and faculty in their multifaceted programs.

At the University of Kentucky (my home institution), the Confucius Institute does precisely what such institutes are supposed to do. It facilitates student and faculty travel to China, helps improve the breadth of Chinese language and cultural education on campus, holds regular co-curricular activities (it recently helped sponsor a “Year of China” on campus), and in general serves as a coordination space for the study of China in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. From the point of view of faculty and administrators, there’s almost nothing wrong with this; the CI brings money, expertise, and interest.

My own program, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, is no different in this regard. Over the years, we have sent several faculty members to China for research and speaking trips, although not always under the aegis of the Confucius Institute.  We’ve also received a significant number of outstanding students from China, and we’ve been able to participate in the wide variety of activities that the Confucius Institute has facilitated on the University of Kentucky campus.

However, as a school that graduates many of its students into government jobs (some into the intelligence community), the conflict of interest is hardly lost upon us. There’s no point in pretending that the CI is not an arm (one of many) of the authoritarian Chinese state, committed to projecting an exclusive vision of what China is and ought to be. While our students (and the broader student population) are more wary of propaganda than we often give them credit for, there’s also little question that when faculty and administrators collaborate with the CI, we’re implicated in the project, in both trivial and non-trivial ways.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the vast bulk of the students of the University of Kentucky benefit from the Confucius Center. The Center brings in excellent scholars, facilitates teaching, and makes it easier for American students (even those in states with relatively small Chinese populations) to connect with one of the world’s oldest, most important civilizations on Earth.

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And so at risk of pursuing the mushy middle road, we in academia can grant that the Confucius Institutes represent an act of (not entirely disinterested) generosity on the part of the People’s of Republic of China, and we can do our best to take advantage of this generosity in both our research and on behalf of our students. The United States is not at war with China; it maintains correct diplomatic relations with Beijing and American business conducts commerce with China on a vast scale. At the same time, without worrying overmuch that we’re submitting to the “rhythm of totalitarianism,” we need to remember that the Institutes represent one (privileged) vision of China’s past, present, and future. The CI is not a center for disinterested research (although few places are), and we can’t expect academic even-handedness with respect to the critical political challenges affecting the U.S.-China relationship today.