Questions about the Confucius Institute

Kansas State University is about to open a Confucius Institute on its campus and some there, including associate professor of philosophy John Mahoney, are raising concerns. He writes in a guest editorial in The Collegian:

Is there an important difference between an international exchange program in which students cross borders to study abroad, and a international education institute on the K-State campus that is funded by a government? What if the government that funds the institute is undemocratic and has a lousy track record of respecting basic human rights, such as religious freedom and freedom of expression? If this government provides money for what is supposed to be a non-political institute whose primary aims are to provide language instruction and to promote knowledge of the culture, does that make a difference? These are questions we should be asking about the new Confucius Institute at K-State.

Mahoney says “we should embrace international students on our campus whether they come from a democratic state or not. An individual is not a state!” But he recounts some of the issues other universities have encountered with Confucius Institutes, quoting from Marshall Sahlins’ 2013 article from The Nation, “China U.”:

“Many reputable and informed scholars of China have observed that the Confucius Institutes are marked by the same “no-go zones” that Beijing enforces on China’s public sphere,” Sahlin said. “In an interview reported in The New York Times, June Teufel Dreyer, who teaches Chinese government and foreign policy at Miami University, said: ‘You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama – or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership – these are all off limits.’

The Confucius Institutes at North Carolina State University and the University of Sydney actively attempted to prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking. At Sydney, he had to speak off-campus, and the (Confucius Institute) sponsored a lecture by a Chinese academic who had previously claimed that Tibet was always part of China, notwithstanding that it was mired in feudal darkness and serfdom until the Chinese democratic reforms of 1959. The Confucius Institute at Waterloo University mobilized its students to defend the Chinese repression of a Tibetan uprising, and McMaster University and Tel Aviv University ran into difficulties with the legal authorities because of the anti–Falun Gong activities of their Confucius Institutes.

Other taboo subjects include the Tiananmen massacre, blacklisted authors, human rights, the jailing of dissidents, the democracy movement, currency manipulation, environmental pollution and the Uighur autonomy movement in Xinjiang.”

He endorses the AAUP recommendation that “universities should refrain from hosting a Confucius Institute unless the terms of the agreement between the Institute and the host university grant the host university ‘unilateral control … over all academic matters.’ The agreement should also guarantee that Confucius Institute employees have the same legal rights to academic freedom that are enjoyed by other university employees.”

The full editorial is here.


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