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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Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
6 years ago

The University of Chicago (where I teach) earlier this year decided not to renew their relationship with the Confucius Institute.

http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2014/09/25/statement-confucius-institute-university-chicago

and https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/09/26/chicago-severs-ties-chinese-government-funded-confucius-institute

It is actually a bit unclear to me what has happened — the IHE article indicates that “The decision means that the Confucius Institute at Chicago will cease to exist when the current five-year agreement expires this Monday, Sept. 29, although its director, Dali Yang, said that the institute continues to support existing projects.” but their website still exists at http://confuciusinstitute.uchicago.edu/ — although the news and events page has nothing after a welcome back reception on Sept. 25 other than a link to the above statement.Report

Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
6 years ago

We have a local Confucius Institute at an area college and my understanding is that most of its activities focus primarily on supporting already-existing Chinese language instruction in elementary schools (I don’t know if this is representative of other Institutes). Seems pretty harmless, and indeed kind of a great resource for a region without a lot of other venues for such support. In this regard, what’s the difference between Confucius Institutes and, say, branches of Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute? Is this a general worry about ANY foreign financial influence within American academies, or is the worry peculiar to China?Report

Jon Mahoney
Jon Mahoney
6 years ago

Kevin,

Those are good points and good questions.

My views: This should most definitely not be about funding for centers or projects by foreign governments (in the op-ed I used “governments” and not “foreign governments” for exactly that reason). I could have written “funding source,” which might be a better choice of words (e.g. funding by a special interest group that supports climate change denial for an environmental ethics center should provoke a serious discussion). The Goethe Institute is not analogous because Goethe Institute employees are not university employees. It may be true that many or most Confucius Institutes fit your description, but it is also clear that some do not, which is why I agree with AAUP’s position. For a good summary of multiple viewpoints, I recommend this article from Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/24/debate-renews-over-confucius-institutesReport

Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
6 years ago

Thank you, Jon!Report

Anonymaus
Anonymaus
6 years ago

You might also want to look at this interview with the head of Confucius Institute and decide whether’s it’s like the Goethe Institute or not. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-30567743Report

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward
6 years ago

“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?”

Um, like the US?Report

Manyul Im
6 years ago

These are important questions raised by John Mahoney. They’ve been around for a while now but every once in a while they surface in some particular institution. I think the issue is tricky because it’s not clear what the source of any restrictions on academic freedom really is in these situations. The Confucius Institute is a funded center — usually revolving around language courses and events. If there are threats to pull the funding because of certain activities or planned ones, that might start a chain of events whereby the funded university or college puts pressure on someone to comply, but that’s clearly the fault of the funded institution’s administrators, not the Confucius Institute. You could just tell the Institute “zaijian” — in principle. In that sense, the activities of the Chinese government are incidental. Any donor or funding source could try to entice the university into restricting academic freedom; it just has to resist. Calling into play the Chinese government’s activities seems beside the point; it’s really an issue of the university’s resolve to protect academic freedom from the influence of money from any source.Report

Jon Mahoney
Jon Mahoney
6 years ago

Manyul Im,

I agree. My aim in writing the op-ed was to encourage faculty and students at KSU to pose questions that would focus on the terms of the agreement that KSU has made with the Confucius Institute—no doubt, there are better ways to frame the issues to encourage these questions.

Anonymous Coward,

Indeed! A good example is the case of Tariq Ramadan. In 2004 Ramadan resigned from his appointment at Notre Dame after his visa was revoked: http://news.nd.edu/news/7343-tariq-ramadan-resigns-from-faculty/.Report