[…] In 2009, in one of the most egregious cases that have been made public, the Confucius Institute at North Carolina State prevented the university from hosting Tibet’s Dalai Lama. The institute’s director, Bailian Li, told provost Warwick Arden that the visit could disrupt “some of the strong relationships we were developing with China.” NCS cancelled the visit ostensibly due to a shortage of “time and resources,” but Arden admitted to Bloomberg that pressure had worked, saying, “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications.” […]
[…] Without question, rapid economic growth has given greater economic opportunity to hundreds of millions of Chinese people, but predictions that such growth would lead to greater political opening have not panned out. On the contrary, hopes that new President Xi Jinping would curb the state’s power and introduce rule of law were dashed once again by the Communist Party Central Committee in October 2014. In fact, “intolerance of dissent and secretive purges have intensified.” As The Washington Post noted, though China’s own constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the government recently imprisoned a Tibetan abbot and an 81-year-old writer who criticized Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo was rewarded by his government with an 11-year prison sentence, while his wife has been confined to house arrest.
China’s internal crackdown is mirrored by its actions toward the people of Hong Kong, whose democratic rights, guaranteed by treaty, are being denied. Even America’s always diplomatic Department of State continues to identify China as an authoritarian state where “repression and coercion … were routine” in 2013.
The PRC has an interest in obscuring these facts and creating a more favorable narrative. Just as its broader strategic objectives justify concerns about trade in arms and dual-use items, trade in instruments of culture also raises troubling problems. For instance, when universities do not stay true to their core mission of the free pursuit of facts, they indoctrinate rather than educate, while films and other cultural works that purposely conceal the truth can be called neither art nor entertainment, but rather should be labeled propaganda.[…]
China funds America’s universities in a number of different ways. For example, tuition payments allow the PRC to fund these institutions directly. In the 2012–2013 school year, “Chinese student enrollments in American universities increased by 21 percent in total to almost 235,000 students, and increased by 26 percent at the undergraduate level.” China had by far the highest number of foreign students in the U.S.: 28.7 percent of the total foreign student population was from the PRC. By comparison, India provided 11.8 percent of foreign students, a decrease of 3.5 percent from the 2011–2012 school year. Because most of China’s students are ineligible for financial aid and pay full tuition, they represent an important source of income for America’s colleges and universities.
Another way that universities get money from China is through donations. Between 2007 and November 2013, mainland Chinese accounted for about $60 million in donations to U.S. universities, and the figure is a lot higher if Hong Kong donors are included.
Finally, there are the Confucius Institutes, Chinese government–supported centers that are set up at universities and K–12 schools around the world ostensibly to teach Chinese language and culture but that also fund other China research at the universities that host them. In the United States, there are some 97 units at universities and close to 400 “Confucius classrooms” in K–12 schools.
The Confucius Institutes
Supporters of the Confucius Institutes depict them as “a bridge to help Chinese people and foreigners know more about each other”—institutions that are “no more different than the Goethe Institute, the British Council and the French Alliance.” The Chinese entity that runs the institutes—the Chinese Language International, known by its Chinese acronym “Hanban”—describes itself as “a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education” that “is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide” and “goes all out in meeting the demands of foreign Chinese learners and contributing to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.”
In order to achieve these goals, the institutes give cash-hungry universities $1 million to get up and running before kicking in additional funding that ranges from $100,000 to more than $200,000 a year. Hanban also sends a director to oversee the institute in tandem with an American director appointed by the university. To critics, however, the list of complaints far outweighs any benefits. Specifically:
- The Confucius Institutes attempt to stifle free and open debate on China precisely in the places where it should be prized the most—America’s schools and universities.
- Hanban/Confucius Institutes misrepresent themselves when they stress the link to the PRC’s Education Ministry. Hanban reports directly to political apparatchiks in the Politburo, not to educators in the Ministry (who are, as likely as not, members of the Chinese Communist Party in any case).
- The agreements between universities and Hanban that establish the Confucius Institutes include nondisclosure clauses that make the entire enterprise opaque.
- The Confucius Institutes have been set up as bases of industrial espionage and to pursue Chinese students and other Chinese nationals who stray from the party line here in the United States.
- By adhering to Chinese law and barring the hiring of people whose activities are illegal in China—for example, adherents of the Falun Gong religion—the Confucius Institutes break U.S. labor and employment laws.
A strong argument can be made that by agreeing to set up Confucius Institutes, the U.S. is allowing a foreign government to influence, and in some cases dictate, what American students learn. This was the conclusion reached last June by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which called on the U.S. and Canada to cease their involvement with the institutes unless the
Agreement between the university and Hanban is renegotiated so that (1) the university has unilateral control, consistent with principles articulated in the AAUP’sStatement on Government of Colleges and Universities,over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts; (2) the university affords Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights, as defined in the 1940Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,that it affords all other faculty in the university; and (3) the university-Hanban agreement is made available to all members of the university community. More generally, these conditions should apply to any partnerships or collaborations with foreign governments or foreign government-related agencies.
Such reform was needed because, argues the AAUP, “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
The list of topics that are subject to this restriction is long and equals those on which discussion is restricted to official talking points in China itself: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen (the “Three Ts”), as well as Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Occupy Central, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and many other subjects. This censoring happens both overtly and in more nuanced forms: for example, when American academics self-censor, lest they offend their guests. It also includes working to bar campus appearances by figures that China’s Communist leaders oppose, such as the Dalai Lama or any official from Taiwan.