Academic flap turns up heat on China's Confucius Institutes

A dustup at a recent Chinese studies conference, and renewed pressure from US academics, has increased opposition to the government-funded programs that aim to spread Chinese language and culture.

Students holding umbrellas walk past a statue of Confucius after the morning session on the second day of the National College Entrance Exams in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, June 8, 2009.

Just as China has exercised its clout with Japan and Vietnam over major territorial disputes, it is showing a willingness to dictate terms at more modest levels as well in its engagement with the international community.

Late in July, in Portugal, a Chinese official apparently hijacked the printed programs for a conference of European scholars on China. The official then returned them – minus pages that contained references to a Taiwan think tank. 

The incident reenergized scrutiny of China’s “Confucius Institutes,” the government-funded programs that partner with universities abroad to teach Chinese language and culture. While first greeted with cautious optimism, the institutes have sparked fierce debate in recent years and become the subject of rumor and suspicion. 

For many, they have also become a gauge of US college administrators' and faculties' fortitude in weighing academic freedom and the cachet of hosting China study abroad programs. 

Since 2004, some 450 colleges around the world have agreed to house the institutes. The US has more than 90 of them. Many of the programs are praised, especially for allowing small schools with small budgets to offer Mandarin – and the prospect of study in China. 

Chinese officials say they want to set up 1,000 of the institutes – named after the bearded philosopher of antiquity who himself had been persona non grata for the Communist Party until the past decade – by the year 2020 [see related story]. They have also stated they are part of what they call a “propaganda setup” – which, to be fair, some academics say could simply mean advertising and promotion.

Yet more scholars in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia are growing uneasy with them.

In June, the influential American Association of University Professors called for the ending of Confucius Institutes on US campuses until standards of academic freedom and terms of what they called ‘secretive partnership contracts’ became more transparent. Unlike Germany's Goethe Institutes or France's Alliance Française, Confucius Institutes are not run independently, but rely on partnerships with the host colleges.

The group stated in a letter: 

Their academic activities are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China. Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China. Specifically, 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.

 Last December, the Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a similar statement.

Other complaints include charges that Confucius Institute materials on such issues as Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the 1989 Tiananmen event are either compromised or appear to be censored or presented as propaganda. McMaster University in Canada did not renew its institute contract when told a teacher could not express her views on the Falun Gong spiritual movement that is outlawed in China. Some educators chafe that study of China is vetted in liberal-arts institutions by a communist party. 

Latest flashpoint

Matters hit a new boiling point at the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) conference in Portugal. 

Xu Lin, the director of the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, visited the conference, saw references in a program to a Taiwan think tank affiliated with the government that called itself a “national” institute, and demanded the pages be removed. Then, according to a detailed EACS report, she ordered the programs confiscated by her staff. They were returned with the offending pages missing, and a number of scholars then circulated photos of the sliced-up programs.

Roger Greatrex, a Swedish scholar and head of EACS, was outraged. Mr. Greatrex wrote a protest on behalf of the group, stating that the program was not even funded by a Confucius Institute and stated further: 

Such interference in the internal organization of the international conference of an independent and democratically organized non-profitable academic organization is totally unacceptable. It cannot and will never be tolerated…. Providing support to a conference does not give any sponsor the right to dictate parameters to academic topics … on the basis of political requirements.

Monitor calls to the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing were not returned. 

In the latest twist, this week Ms. Xu met in private with foreign scholars in Shanghai. She was reportedly gracious. But asked specifically about the missing pages she denied ordering them censored.

One China studies scholar, citing Confucius' emphasis on ethics, asked: "What would Confucius think?"

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