The National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a report on Wednesday on the influence of the Confucius Institutes in American colleges and universities and underwritten by the communist government of China. With more than 100 operating in the U.S., the Confucius Institutes offer for-credit courses in Chinese language and culture that are staffed and funded by China’s Ministry of Education and through the Office of Chinese Languages Council International (Hanban). In addition, Hanban also operates similarly organized Confucius Classrooms (CCs) at 501 American primary and secondary schools. The 604 educational outposts of the Confucius Institutes in the U.S. represent a plurality of China’s 1,579 Confucius Institutes and classrooms worldwide.
In a video conference on Wednesday, NSA policy director Rachelle Peterson said, “Confucius Institutes undermine intellectual freedom and present a whitewashed version of what China is. " Peterson recalled that once when she asked a director of a local Confucius Institute director for a response about the Tiananmen Massacre, where Chinese troops slew hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, the director responded by pointing out the "beautiful architecture" in the iconic locale in Beijing when tanks crushed civilian protesters in 1989.
In a statement, NSA noted that while the Confucius Institutes frequently attract scrutiny because of “their close ties to the Chinese government,” it expressed concern over stories that “intellectual freedom, merit-based hiring policies, and other foundational principles of American higher education have received short shrift in Confucius Institutes.
According to NSA, the Confucius Institutes are shrouded in secrecy. Noting that at most of the institutes, the terms of agreement are hidden, NSA stated: “China’s leaders have not assuaged worries that the Institutes may teach political lessons that unduly favor China. In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
NSA recommends that all universities close their Confucius Institutes. If the Confucius Institutes are not closed by universities, it provided recommendations for concerned faculty members to follow.
In an overview of its lengthy report, NSA said that its case studies of twelve Confucius Institutes—two in New Jersey and ten in New York— looked into hiring policies, funding arrangements, contracts between the Hanban and universities, as well as pressures applied on faculty members.
NSA expressed concern in four areas:
“1. Intellectual freedom. Official Hanban policy requires Confucius Institutes to adhere to Chinese law, including speech codes. Chinese teachers hired, paid by, and accountable to the Chinese government face pressures to avoid sensitive topics, and American professors report pressure to self-censor.
“2. Transparency. Contracts between American universities and the Hanban, funding arrangements, and hiring policies for Confucius Institute staff are rarely publicly available. Some universities went to extraordinary efforts to avoid scrutiny, cancelling meetings and forbidding NAS from visiting campus.
“3. Entanglement. Confucius Institutes are central nodes in a complex system of relationships with China. Confucius Institutes attract full-tuition-paying Chinese students, fund scholarships for American students to study abroad, and offer other resources. Universities with financial incentives to please China find it more difficult to criticize Chinese policies.
“4. Soft Power. Confucius Institutes tend to present China in a positive light and to focus on anodyne aspects of Chinese culture. They avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, present Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and develop a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country.
Among the recommendations NSA is urging upon university faculty are calls for transparency so that all contracts and other agreements between Hanban and universities can be easily downloaded. It also called for an annual disclosure of how much funding each university receives from Hanban or Chinese partner institution for its Confucius Institute, while disclosing all trips and awards bestowed by agencies of the Chinese government.
Other recommendations included: “Ensure that all CI budgets are separate from university budgets, and that all Confucius Institute events are advertised as such,” “Renegotiate contracts to remove constraints against ‘tarnishing the reputation’ of the Hanban. Scholarship should be civil, but it should not be constrained by the fear of punishment for offending Chinese sensitivities,” “Formally ask the Hanban if its hiring process complies with American nondiscrimination policies. Does the Hanban prioritize members of the Communist Party?,” and “Require that all Confucius Institutes offer at least one public lecture or class each year on topics that are important to Chinese history but are currently neglected, such as the Tiananmen Square protests or the Dalai Lama’s views on Tibet.”
NSA also recommended that Congress and state legislatures such have oversight and open investigations into the Confucius Institutes. “Congress should ask universities to turn over copies of their agreements with the Hanban and their partner Chinese universities,” NSA recommended, adding that Congress should also “evaluate risks to national security. It should consider whether Confucius Institutes increase the risks of a foreign government spying or collecting sensitive information.”
NSA called on all American school districts to terminate their contracts with Hanban and put into place the recommended intermediary steps to protect “integrity of American education and intellectual freedom.”
Teachers sponsored by Confucius Institutes continue to teach in the U.S. For example, Middle School Principal Jerry Goosen of the Ovid-Elsie school district in rural Michigan spent 10 days in China as part of Confucius Institute program through the Michigan State University exchange program. He told the Argus Press, “It was a great experience,” and “I feel very fortunate for the opportunity.” Chinese is taught to elementary level students in Ovid, a village in central lower Michigan that has a population of approximately 1,600 people.
Both the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University have Confucius Institutes on their campuses, as do many other universities across the U.S. The University of Chicago, however, severed its relationship with the Confucius Institutes in 2014. In 2013, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NY) called for an investigation into the relationship between the Confucius Institutes and U.S. universities after expressing concern over possible restrictions on academic freedom placed by China. He asked the General Accounting Office to look into the Confucius Institutes, which was incomplete
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed that the agency is in the midst of “investigative steps” regarding Confucius Institutes. This was in response to questions posed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who called Confucius Institutes “complicit” in China’s efforts “to covertly influence public opinion.” After Rubio sent a letter to Florida educational institutions, calling on them to shut down their Confucius Institutes, the University of West Florida announced it would do so.