A growing number of Confucius Institutes are closing across U.S. college campuses amid concerns over their threats to academic freedom.
While billed as Chinese language and culture centers, Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes have drawn mounting criticism in the United States and elsewhere over its role in stifling free speech and promoting Chinese propaganda and influence in academic institutions.
Since 2004, more than 100 Confucius Institutes have opened in universities across the United States. Although this number has diminished in recent years as a rising number of colleges shutter the controversial centers, many have done so as a result of a measure in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, which bars universities that host Confucius Institutes from receiving funding from the Pentagon.
As of May, 38 universities had closed or are in the process of closing their institutes, according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an education advocacy group. By the end of the summer, there will be 80 institutes left in the country.
“Confucius Institutes import censorship into American higher education,” Rachelle Peterson, policy director at NAS told Epoch Times in an email. “They are inherently at odds with the intellectual freedom that a college or university requires.”
Peterson describes Confucius Institutes as “class-in-a-box kits” from the Chinese regime, which supplies the host university with teachers and their salaries, teaching materials, as well as funding to run the centers.
A 2017 NAS report authored by Peterson which recommended the closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States, highlighted the centers’ role in presenting a positive image of the communist regime.
“They avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history,” it said.
The institutes are funded and operated by Hanban, or the Office of Chinese Language Council International, an office within China’s Ministry of Education.
Since 2006, Hanban has poured more than $158 million to about 100 U.S. universities for Confucius Institutes, according to a 2019 U.S. Senate subcommittee on investigations report (pdf). Between 2008 to 2016, Hanban spent more than $2 billion on setting up such institutes on college campuses around the world.
Outside of higher education, there are 512 Confucius Classrooms operating in K-12 grade schools in the United States, the report said.
Chinese officials themselves have remarked that Confucius Institutes are a key plank in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign to expand its global influence.
The CCP’s then-propaganda chief Li Changchun in 2009 described Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
Later in a 2011 speech, he extolled the centers as 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,” Li said at the time.
The Senate subcommittee report found that some contracts between Hanban and U.S. universities contained provisions stating that both Chinese and U.S. law apply.
Chinese teachers, meanwhile, must sign contracts with Hanban, which state that their contracts will be terminated if they “violate Chinese laws,” “engage in activities detrimental to national interests,” or “participate in illegal organizations,” the report said. The terms also require instructors to “conscientiously safeguard national interests” and report to the Chinese Embassy within one month of arrival in the United States.
Sonia Zhao, a former Chinese teacher at the Confucius Institute at Canada’s McMaster University, defected to the country in 2011. As reported by The Epoch Times at the time, prior to arriving in Canada, Zhao had to sign a contract stating that employees must not practice Falun Gong, a spiritual group persecuted by the Chinese regime. Zhao, herself an adherent of the practice, signed the agreement out of fear that a refusal could expose herself as a practitioner and lead to arrest.
In 2013, McMaster University became the first university in North America to close its Confucius Institute after Zhao filed a complaint at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario over its discriminatory hiring practices. A spokesperson for the university said that the decision was made because “hiring decisions in China were not being done the way we would want to do the hiring.”
Zhao revealed at the time that during her training in Beijing, they were told to avoid mentioning sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Taiwan, and Falun Gong in the classroom. However, if a student insists on a question, the teachers have to cite the CCP line on the issue, such as: Taiwan is part of China, and Tibet has been “liberated” by the regime.
Doris Liu, who directed a 2017 Canadian documentary “In the Name of Confucius” which spotlights Zhao’s story, told The Epoch Times that money flowing from the regime to Western universities comes with “strings attached.”
Liu recalled that she met with three representatives of Confucius Institutes in Germany last year who told her that an unwritten condition for opening the centers is that issues deemed sensitive by the CCP are not to be discussed in the classroom.
In Peterson’s evidence to a 2019 UK inquiry, she said that Yin Xiuli, director of the New Jersey City University Confucius Institute, told her in 2016, “we don’t touch” issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, and Falun Gong.
There are also notable instances of Confucius Institutes interfering in activities outside the classroom.
In 2004, an academic scandal erupted after Confucius Institute staff stole and tore out pages from a program book of a Chinese studies conference in Portugal. They did so under orders from the global head of Hanban Xu Lin, because the programs had included material about another conference sponsor, a Taiwanese organization.
The conference organizer decried the act as “interference” to an independent academic body that was “totally unacceptable.”
In 2018, journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian discovered that her reporting experience in Taiwan was deleted from her biography when she gave a speech at the Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. She later found out that the Chinese director of the campus’s Confucius Institute was behind the removal.
A public screening of Liu’s documentary at Victoria University in Australia was canceled in 2018 after heads of the campus’s Confucius Institute indicated to administrative staff that the screening would be a “problem for us,” and that the matter was of interest to the Chinese consulate, emails obtained by The Australian showed.
Concerns about the centers’ influence activities in the United States were raised by FBI director Christopher Wray, who at a 2018 Senate hearing confirmed that the agency was watching the institutes “warily” and “in certain instances, have developed appropriate investigative steps.”
Since last July, the U.S. Department of Education has launched a series of investigations into foreign funding at U.S. colleges as part of a wider initiative targeting foreign influence on campuses.
Universities are required under federal law to report gifts and contracts with any foreign sources that exceed $250,000 in a calendar year. However, the Senate subcommittee report found that nearly 70 percent of universities failed to properly report funding they received from Confucius Institutes.
The department’s enforcement action has resulted in the reporting of about $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign money, including from China, Qatar, and Russia, it stated.
In a November 2019 report (pdf) to the Senate subcommittee, the department said that foreign donors may be seeking to project soft power, steal sensitive research, and spread propaganda at U.S. schools.
The investigations, according to the report, also revealed that one university had multiple contracts with the CCP’s central committee, another received gifts from a foundation suspected of acting as an influence front for the Chinese regime, and one received research funding from a Chinese multinational to develop technology for surveillance.
Meanwhile, a group of Republican lawmakers recently pressed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for information on Beijing’s investments in American colleges to further its strategic and propaganda goals. Their letter noted that Confucius Institutes serve as a vehicle to promote Beijing propaganda to American students, as well as “a gathering ground for Chinese intelligence agencies.”
Dovetailing with government efforts is a burgeoning student-led movement speaking out against the Chinese regime’s infiltration of college campuses.
Last week, dozens of leaders of the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America, representing universities in more than 45 states, along with rights groups representing Tibetan, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese communities, signed an open letter calling for the permanent closure of all Confucius Institutes on American campuses.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s actions pose an immense threat to academic freedom and to human dignity. It is imperative that we distinguish this totalitarian regime from the Chinese people, whom we must steadfastly defend from abhorrent acts of xenophobia, racism, and hatred,” the letter read.
The letter was organized by newly-formed nonprofit Athenai Institute. Director and co-founder Rory O’Connor told The Epoch Times that the organization was founded after a group of college students wanted to defend against the CCP’s “unprecedented assault” on students’ rights and academic freedom.
O’Connor said the group has seen a wave of interest since the release of the open letter and has plans to launch 25 Athenai chapters in the coming weeks.
“Our generation has seen those in power fail to act—whether out of principle or just at all—and we are not blind to those who are suffering and suppressed by the plutocratic, fascist CCP,” O’Connor said.