Yesterday, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto announced the immediate closing of the university’s Confucius Institute. The proximate cause of the closure was concern over whether the presence of the institute would jeopardize U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) funding, as mandated by the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Reportedly, nine of the University of Kentucky (UK)’s colleges receive some form of funding from the DoD, totaling over $50 million.
The case against Confucius Institutes (CIs) is well known; they provide an outlet for whitewashing the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. college campuses, essentially representing an outpost of the CCP in the United States (and elsewhere). However, the idea that Confucius Institutes offer a particularly virulent vector for spreading Chinese propaganda is based on a complete misunderstanding of how undergraduate education works, and is largely nonsense. American undergraduates understand what propaganda is and will likely treat “fact based” alternatives generated by the U.S. government with the same level of disdain that they treat current CCP offerings. Indeed, existing research on the effect of Confucius Institute programs on student attitudes suggests that they have little to no significant impact on how students view China or the CCP.
That said, there are strong reasons to worry about the influence of CIs on campus life. The idea that CIs provide access to travel and research funding for a wide array of American academics is of significant concern, as is the case with all external funding. Seed funding does not necessarily affect conclusions, but it certainly can, and it can also establish a relationship between the funder and the researcher that could prove problematic. The impact of CIs on campus political climate in terms of discussion of Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang is real, although usually manageable. The effect of the presence of a CI on the community of expatriate Chinese students is probably the most serious concern, although we lack good research about how significant that impact is.
Still, some of the concerns are clearly manageable. My own unit, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, co-hosted a speaker series with the UK CI over the last year, inviting such internationally recognized experts as Ankit Panda, Dr. Vipin Narang, Dr. Taylor Fravel, and Dr. Zhiqun Zhu to give talks on international security questions. My children once attended a summer camp sponsored by the UK CI (they rapidly forgot all of the Chinese they learned), and one of my former students worked at the institute. I have also on occasion partaken of the free lunches that the CI has offered to students and faculty. In short, there are real costs to closing a Confucius Institute that ought to be weighed carefully by university administrations.
Nevertheless, University of Kentucky closed its Confucius Institute yesterday. It did so largely in response to a Congressional threat to cut funding from a variety of university programs. Strident defenders of freedom of academic inquiry and of the vulnerable minds of undergraduates should pause to contemplate the implications of this for at least a moment before they celebrate. More broadly, while the CCP is clearly authoritarian in nature and is gearing up for long-term competition with the United States, China gets a vote in how it will be depicted in the West. CIs definitely provide an incomplete and misleading picture of the modern PRC, but it is not at all obvious that students will, in their absence, have access to more extensive or more accurate view of the history of China and of its role in international affairs.