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Opinion: Confucius Institute officials are agents of Chinese censorship

August 11, 2014

August 7, 2014 - Here's a summer reading assignment for the presidents of Stanford, Columbia, Michigan and some 100 other American universities that host Confucius Institutes funded by the Chinese government: In an Aug. 1 report, the European Association for Chinese Studies reveals that Confucius Institute officials stole and censored academic materials at the association's conference last month in Portugal.

According to the report, the trouble began when Vice Minister Xu Lin, director-general of Confucius Institute Headquarters, arrived at the conference on July 22. Her agency had helped fund the event, and she decided that some of the professors' published abstracts "were contrary to Chinese regulations." Also unacceptable was the conference program's description of another sponsor, the Chiang China-kuo Foundation – an affiliate of the Taiwan government. 

So Ms. Xu "ordered her entourage . . . straight away to remove all the conference materials from the conference venue." She returned them two days later, having torn out the pages she didn't like. 

That was too much for Roger Greatrex, professor at Sweden's Lund University and president of the European Association for Chinese Studies, who ordered the pages reprinted and then offered the Confucius Institute leadership a remedial lesson in non-authoritarian academics: "Such interference in the internal organization of the international conference of an independent and democratically organized non-profitable academic organization is totally unacceptable." 

Yet this behavior is hardly an aberration at the 1,100 Confucius Institutes spread across 120 countries. When institutes aren't arranging for Chinese diplomats to lecture students about the evils of Tibet's Dalai Lama, as at the University of Maryland in 2009, they are encouraging self-censorship among faculty who may jeopardize hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual funding by discussing Tiananmen Square, Taiwanese independence or the enormous wealth of China's top leaders. Confucius Institutes “are an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup,” boasted Politburo propaganda czar Li Changchun in 2009. 

Pushback has been minimal, but that may be changing. In June the American Association of University Professors said that Confucius Institutes should be closed unless colleges can demonstrate that their contracts with Beijing don't infringe on curriculum design, hiring or other academic matters. That would first require making those contracts public, contrary to Beijing's preference for secrecy. 

The Canadian Association for University Teachers last year took a harder line, arguing that Confucius Institutes can't be reformed because they are "owned and operated by an authoritarian government and beholden to its politics." McMaster University in Ontario closed its institute last year after an instructor objected that her contract required her to conceal her belief in Falun Gong, the spiritual movement persecuted by Beijing since 1999 as a threat to Communist rule. In 2010 Canadian intelligence chief Richard Fadden said that Confucius Institutes are managed by China’s embassies and organize protests against Taiwan, Falun gong and other supposed “poisons”.  

Confucius Institutes are also spreading in American primary and secondary schools, with 20 districts launching new ones this year in partnership with the College Board (administrator of the SAT). As at the college level, the contracts between K-12 districts and the Chinese government are not typically made public. 

The European Association for Chinese Studies has done a public service by sounding the alarm over the Confucius Institute's bullying approach to academic freedom. When summer break ends, university presidents and school boards have some explaining to do.

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