22 April 2019
The Confucius Institute program has received its share of criticism in host countries. Photo: internet
The Confucius Institute program has received its share of criticism in host countries. Photo: internet

Why US universities shutter Confucius Institutes

On a scale of one to 10, where 10 is the biggest, Hong Kong is an ’11′ when it comes to Beijing’s public relations nightmares.

Outside China, notes the New York Times, scenes of peaceful student protesters sprayed with tear gas and bloodied by thugs have elicited unwelcome comparisons to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which ended in violence when the Chinese military moved to crush the protests.

So the fact that two US schools have ended their association with the Confucius Institute program—a pair of recent events which rank down the scale as maybe a ‘three’ in China’s grand scheme of things—is no big deal.

Except that it is.

First came the University of Chicago, which closed its Confucius Institute in late September. Then, within a week, Pennsylvania State University announced that it, too, would no longer host its Confucius Institute.

In the past few years, Confucius Institutes—teaching facilities for Chinese language and culture linked to foreign universities and paid for by the Chinese government—have multiplied worldwide like “mushrooms after rain,” as the Chinese saying goes, wrote Bloomberg.

Since the program’s launch in 2004, 440 institutes have been established in 120 countries.

In the United States, there are 62 Confucius Institutes in 37 states, including programs at Stanford, UCLA, Columbia, Rutgers, Purdue, Texas A&M, Washington State and San Diego State.

Beijing sees the Confucius Institutes as a way to promote its own soft power overseas, with the intent to shape China’s image globally. In theory, the idea is to increase mutual awareness and understanding between China and the rest of the world by teaching Chinese language and introducing Chinese culture.

In practice, however, the program has received its share of criticism in host countries.

“Some critics contend that the institutes reflect the Chinese government’s agenda and that their operation on university campuses interferes with academic freedom,” said Jay Wang, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. “Others find the teaching materials and pedagogy less than adequate.”

(For the record, the University of Southern California does not have a Confucius Institute.)

The institutes have been slammed for the restrictive contracts teachers have to sign, for their lack of political discussion, and for the pressure it’s feared they may put on their partners to discourage “anti-China” activities or studies, said a Bloomberg report.

In June, the American Association of University Professors called on universities to cancel their agreements with Confucius Institutes, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chancellor’s Professor of Chinese History at the University of California Irvine, wrote recently in the Asia Society’s online magazine, ChinaFile, “I have misgivings about Confucius Institutes and hope U.C. Irvine never gets one.”

Others outright accuse Confucius Institutes as being on-campus safe havens for industrial and military spies.

Again, while a couple of schools terminating their relationships with a program that turns 10 years old this November isn’t as embarrassing as let’s say media reports saying more than 80 percent of the ammunition used by ISIS is made in China, you can be sure that somebody in Zhongnanhai is yelling at someone else.

To be sure, whoever that person is is sweating bullets because Stanford’s contract ends next month unless administrators renew it.

Stanford, for reference, is in Chinese eyes one of the most prestigious schools in America, so much so that wealthy parents will pay specialized tutoring centers as much as US$600,000 to help get their kids enrolled.

If Stanford doesn’t re-up, it will be a serious setback for Confucius Institutes, which is funded by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, as it is the most prominent US university affiliated with the Confucius program.

“Stanford’s administrators are caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma,” wrote Eamonn Fingleton in Forbes.

“On the one hand they evidently appreciate the funding they receive from Beijing,” said Fingleton, “but on the other hand the idea of allowing a bunch of Chinese propagandists (let alone a nest of spies) to operate on campus could prove highly damaging to the university’s ability to raise funding from its traditional sources on the American libertarian right.”

Stanford reportedly received US$4 million to host its Confucius Institute.

We’ll see what happens.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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