Scholarly Subversion or Innocuous Instruction?

The Confucius Institute Debate

Xu Lin at the dedication of the Colorado State University Confucius Institute, April 12, 2013; credit: Colorado State UniversityConfucius Institutes are academic and cultural programs financially backed by the Chinese government. These institutions affiliate themselves with colleges throughout the world, teaching the Chinese language and promoting the Communist country's culture. They've drawn backlash for using discriminatory hiring practices and pushing what some view as Chinese government propaganda in classrooms.

Last September, The University of Chicago cut its ties with its Confucius Institute due to remarks that Xu Lin, the program's head, made in the Chinese press about the university. Marshall Sahlins, anthropologist and professor emeritus at The University of Chicago, has been an outspoken opponent of Confucius Institutes in America’s universities and colleges. His recently published book, Confucius Institute: Academic Malware examines the detrimental effect they have. Paola Zamperini is the chair of the Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Northwestern University and attests to the educational value of these programs for cash-strapped schools.

Are Confucius Institutes an asset or a tool of manipulation by the Chinese government? We discuss the issue.

Paola Zamperini:

“The benefit of teaching Chinese language and culture in American classrooms is that you spark students’ curiosity and broaden their perspective. Having Chinese taught extensively is a great way to open the door for students to travel.

If the Chinese government provides funding to American institutions, then it is an asset. It would, however, be the best scenario if the United States provided additional funding. The serious issue needs to be around the fact that North American governments are no longer willing to sponsor language education in North American classrooms.

Language education is quintessential to the 21st century classroom, especially in a globalized world. The Confucius Institutes are a temporary solution to acquiring this funding, but if we’re serious about creating 21st century global citizens, then we cannot rely on foreign actors. We need more help from the American government.”

Marshall Sahlins:

“Confucius Institutes align themselves with colleges, while the Confucius Classrooms are the K-12 programs. Chicago Public Schools have a robust Confucius Classrooms program with an enrollment of around 12,000 students. These classrooms are strictly teaching institutions whereas the Confucius Institutes may have little to no teaching curriculum at all. They may focus on lectures and events instead.

Confucius Classrooms are a big concern because they show a distorted representation of China. They keep politically sensitive material out of classrooms. The teachers are trained in censorship. This is in terms of kids who are not sophisticated and are more impressionable. These classes are violating our notions of academic inquiry.”

Read an excerpt from Sahlins' book.

“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.” So runs the report of a speech in November 2011 by Li Changchun, then a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest body of the Chinese Communist Party, at the Beijing Headquarters of the Confucius Institute in November 2011. Officially known as The Office of the Chinese Language Council International and commonly as “Hanban,” the Confucius Institute is a Chinese government agency inserted into an increasing number of universities and lower schools the world around, ostensibly with the reasonable and logical mission of teaching Chinese language and culture—and veritably with the practical mission of promoting the real-political influence of the People’s Republic.

Since their inception in 2004, Confucius Institutes (CIs) have been a great success. Presently there are approximately 450 Confucius Institutes operating in 120 countries, including about 100 in the U.S., and some 650 “Confucius Classrooms” offering instruction in K-12 schools. Among the American host institutions are the prestigious private universities of Chicago, Stanford, and Columbia and the exemplary state universities of Michigan, Iowa, and UCLA. The entire public school district of Chicago has enlisted in the program, putting 43 Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary schools with an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students. An obvious reason for this success is the great demand for Chinese language instruction the world over, which in turn suggests a “follow the money” meme, as the demand clearly reflects the global prowess and glowing promise of the Chinese economy.

Less obviously, Confucius Institutes are often hostages to university fortunes, insofar as they are deemed desirable and renewable at the risk of jeopardizing the flow of tuition-paying students from China. Totaling more than 235,000 in 2013-14, these students comprised the largest national contingent of foreign enrollees in American colleges and universities. Still following the money, one should not ignore the various perquisites provided by Hanban to this or that host institution: ranging from tours to China for students in CI courses; to funding research on China by graduate students and faculty (pending approval of the project by Hanban); to wining and dining of university presidents and their families on visits to China, featuring first class air travel, five star hotels, and celebrity tourism—an up-to-date version of the imperial guest ritual of the T’ang dynasty.

Moreover, there is the immediate payoff for the universities concerned: $100,000 and up in start-up costs provided by Hanban, with annual payments of the like over a five-year period, and instruction subsidized as well, including the air fares and salaries of the teachers provided from China. After a period of training by Hanban, the Chinese teachers are in many cases integrated in the university’s degree programs, in charge of regular credit courses. Hanban also agrees to send textbooks, videos, and other classroom materials for these courses—materials that are often welcome in institutions without an important China studies program of their own. In other words, American universities and others are subcontracting teaching to a foreign government.

The teaching component of the local Confucius Institute is often complemented by academic programs such as guest lectures and scholarly conferences on China. Considering that the political constraints in effect on public discussions of certain topics in China are usually followed in Confucius Institutes—no talking of Tibetan independence, the status of Taiwan, the fourth of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, universal human rights, etc.—these academic events are largely consistent with the “cultural activities” of CIs, insofar as they likewise present a positive picture of a peaceful, harmonious, and attractive People’s Republic. From classes on making dumplings to film showings, celebrations of Chinese festivals, and “traditional” folk dances, the CIs put on various “culturetainments” (as Lionel M. Jensen dubbed them) for the community at large. According to the Constitution and By Laws of Confucius Institutes, the annual plans of local CIs must be submitted to Beijing for approval, and Hanban reserves the right to take any CI to court for sponsoring an event it has not first approved.

But none of this has ever happened, say a chorus of Confucius Institute Directors. Hanban has never told us what to do or not to do, they say. No plans of CI events, no research proposals have ever been turned down by Beijing. And most telling, it is claimed that despite the great number of CIs the world around, there have been very few incidents of academic malpractice. Perhaps so when the matter is a public scandal, but something is to be said for what is considered a violation of academic integrity, and what therefore passes for an “incident.”

What usually passes for an incident of this kind is the oft-cited charge of discriminatory hiring against McMaster University in 2012 by an erstwhile Confucius Institute teacher from China, Ms Sonia Zhao, who was unable to maintain her position when she revealed her adherence to Falun Gong. Brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the incident did become a scandal to the extent that McMaster was moved to terminate its Confucius Institute. Yet there are numerous similar events of similar implication that, because they are too parochial or seemingly insignificant, never reach public attention. Indeed, when the “incident” consists of self-censorship on the part of a secondary school teacher in a Confucius Classroom in Ashtabula with regard to topics that are politically taboo in China, the matter is not likely to come to anyone’s attention. Nor would it be necessary to go so far as preventing the Dalai Lama from speaking on campus to make an offense of that nature against academic freedom. I am told on good authority that while it is perfectly possible to hang a portrait of the Dalai Lama in the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, it would be impossible in the Confucius Institute. The quotient of iconicity (ikonicity) in the image is enough to make the point—even though ceci n’est pas un Dalai Lama.

Incidents of academic malpractice in Confucius Institutes, from the virtually unnoticeable to the publicly notorious, are in fact disturbingly common. In what follows I describe a good number of them, based on reports in public media and communications from persons in the institutions involved. A prefactory notice of the views of Chinese officialdom on the politics of culture and Confucius Institutes, together with some reference to the shadow governance of Hanban by the CCP apparatus, will help make these incidents intelligible.

But before going any further, I should make clear the reasons for my temerity in thus entering a debate about Confucius Institutes. This pamphlet has everything to do with the challenges CIs pose to academic freedom and integrity in the US and elsewhere; and although it is necessarily concerned with Chinese government policy, it nothing to do with animus to the PRC as such, the Chinese people, or with some sort of deranged anti-communism. Then, there is the reticence of China scholars with ongoing research interests in China to become engaged in criticism of the CI project. Regrettably, it becomes necessary for people like me to take up these essentially domestic, U.S. issues of academic integrity.

Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware
Marshall Sahlins
Prickly Paradigm Press
ISBN: 978-0-9842010-8-2
© 2015