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The Confucius Institutes reflect President Hu Jintao’s strategy to “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country,”

November 3, 2011

When a Beijing organization with close ties to China’s government offered Stanford University $4 million to host a Confucius Institute on Chinese language and culture and endow a professorship, it attached one caveat: The professor couldn’t discuss delicate issues like Tibet.
“They said they didn’t want to be embarrassed,” said Richard Saller, dean of Stanford’s school of humanities and sciences. Stanford refused, citing academic freedom, and Chinese officials backed down, Saller said. The university plans to use the money for a professorship in classical Chinese poetry, far removed from the Tibet dispute.
China is expanding its presence on U.S. campuses, seeking to promote its culture and history and meet a growing global demand to learn its language. Hanban, a government-affiliated group under the Chinese education ministry, has spent at least $500 million since 2004 establishing 350 Confucius Institutes worldwide and about 75 in the U.S., four times the number in any other country, according to its annual reports and website.
Once confined to teaching Mandarin and traditional arts such as calligraphy at state university campuses, China-funded Confucius Institutes are making inroads into elite higher education by contributing millions of dollars for research, sparking faculty concerns about muting criticism ofChina’s government. The Association for Asian Studies, a leading group of China scholars with 8,000 members worldwide, decided in March it wouldn’t seek or accept Hanban support, due to the lack of a firewall separating China’s government from funding decisions.
No Tibet Talk
“By peddling a product we want, namely Chinese language study, the Confucius Institutes bring the Chinese government into the American academy in powerful ways,” said Jonathan Lipman, a professor of Chinese history at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He also sits on the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies.
“The general pattern is very clear,” Lipman said. “They can say, ‘We’ll give you this money, you’ll have a Chinese program, and nobody will talk about Tibet.’ In this economy, turning them down has real costs.”
China is following the example of countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain, which also have organizations popularizing their languages and cultures abroad. Gifts to U.S. universities from countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Turkey have prompted similar debates about the effect on academic freedom. During the Cold War, the U.S. government began sponsoring libraries, lectures and cultural exhibits in foreign countries as well as programs such as the Peace Corps to project a positive image and counter anti-American sentiment.
Financial Ties
The proliferation of Confucius Institutes illustrates the growing impact of -- and appetite for -- China’s wealth at American universities. Almost 40,000 Chinese undergraduates, most of them paying full tuition, attended U.S. colleges in 2009-2010, four times as many as in 2005-2006. Duke University and New York University are planning branch campuses in China, subsidized by authorities there. China’s banning of 13 American professors who wrote a 2004 book about Xinjiang province, home to a Muslim group seeking self-rule, met little pushback from U.S. universities with growing financial ties to China, Bloomberg News reported Aug. 11.
Stanford University, University of Chicago and Columbia University are among about 20 U.S. colleges that opened Confucius Institutes in 2009 and 2010, and the University of Pennsylvania is reconsidering an earlier rejection. At Harvard University, “maybe there was discussion as a broad possibility but nothing serious,” said William Kirby, director of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
Soft Power
Public universities such as Texas A&M in College Station, and University of Utah in Salt Lake City, received $100,000 apiece from Hanban to start institutes, according to contracts obtained by Bloomberg News under public-records requests. Hanban supplies books, audiovisual and multimedia materials, salaries and airfare for instructors, and continuing funding. It also funds Confucius Classrooms at U.S. elementary and secondary schools.
The Confucius Institutes reflect President Hu Jintao’s strategy to “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country,” as he described it in a 2007 speech to the national congress of China’s Communist Party. Soft power, or gaining influence through persuasion rather than force, is a “factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength,” Hu said. In January, he visited a Confucius Institute in Chicago.
Ideology Avoided
“At what point does soft power become a harder power, where something concrete is asked for?” said Matthew Sommer, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford.
China Daily, the state-owned English-language newspaper, touted Confucius Institutes in a two-page advertisement in the Oct. 30 New York Times for going “all out in meeting the demands of foreign learners and contributing to the development of multiculturalism.” While “some foreign critics have fretted” about interference with academic freedom, the institute “focuses its programming on culture and communication and avoids ideological content,” the Daily said.
Confucius Institute funding is “unconditional,” said Junbo Chen, Vancouver-based North America representative for Hanban. Formally named the Office of Chinese Language Council International, Hanban is composed of members of 12 state ministries and commissions, according to its website.
Following the Law
Supporting research at elite universities is an outgrowth of Hanban’s mission of language education, Chen said. “Many people just think language is how to speak, they don’t have the idea how to explore the language itself,” he said.
Confucius Institutes have “the obligation to accept both supervision from and assessments made” by Hanban, according to their bylaws. Hanban, which supplies Chinese teachers to Confucius Institutes worldwide, requires them to have “no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations,” according to its website.
Members of Falun Gong, a Buddhist sect banned in China, are excluded because Confucius Institutes must follow Chinese as well as U.S. law, Chen said.
Confucius Institutes are adjusting to the values of American academia and becoming less heavy-handed in their demands, said Michael Nylan, professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley. They’ve learned from “early missteps,” such as insisting that universities adopt a policy that Taiwan is part of China, she said.
Dalai Lama Disinvited
When Nylan took an informal survey this year of faculty and administrators at 15 universities with Confucius Institutes, two respondents reported that institutes had exerted pressure to block guest speakers, she said. Both events went ahead anyway, said Nylan, who declined to identify the universities.
The Confucius Institute at North Carolina State University made its feelings known after the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to speak in 2009 on the Raleigh campus. China’s military took over Tibet in 1959, exiling the spiritual leader considered a traitor in China for advocating Tibetan self-rule.
Confucius Institute director Bailian Li told North Carolina State provost Warwick Arden that a visit by the Lama could disrupt “some of the strong relationships we were developing with China,” Arden said. Besides the institute, joint programs include student exchanges, summer research and faculty collaboration.
Lack of Prep Time
The college canceled the event. While the main reason was a shortage of “time and resources,” concern about a backlash from China also played a role, Arden said. “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications,” he said. “Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.”
A Confucius Institute presents an “opportunity for subtle pressure and conflict,” he said.
The about-face had nothing to do with the university’s relationship with China, said Jim Woodward, then North Carolina State’s interim chancellor. Brought in to defuse a political and fiscal crisis, Woodward didn’t have time to “appropriately put on an event for a man of that stature,” he said.
Li said his conversation with Arden occurred after the university rescinded the invitation, and was about developing a strategy for the future. Li said he made the comments in his role as vice provost for international affairs, not institute director. Li is also a forestry professor.
‘Very Silent’
The Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford in October 2010. He also lectured last year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which has had a Confucius Institute since 2007. The institute didn’t protest, said David Keitges, Miami director of international education.
“Their strategy, because it could have been a delicate situation, was, ‘We’re going to be very silent about it,’” Keitges said. “The day after, we’ll act like it never happened.”
Confucius Institute directors said Hanban gives them broad latitude. At the University of Oregon, the Confucius Institute submits an annual budget proposal to Hanban, much as other centers on campus apply for U.S. Department of Education funding, said institute director Bryna Goodman, a professor of modern Chinese history. Hanban has approved almost all of the institute’s suggested projects, including a conference in April on an “edgy topic,” China’s role in regulating the global information economy, Goodman said.
“Hanban hasn’t raised any political objections, not at all,” she said.
‘No Chinese Fingerprints’
Chao Fen Sun, professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford, helped bring a Confucius Institute there. A Chinese education representative invited Sun around 2005 to apply for a grant to study Chinese language, spurring “several years of conversations” about a research-oriented institute, he said.
Under the December 2009 agreement, Hanban donated $1 million for conferences and other programs, $1 million for two graduate fellowships, and $2 million for a Confucius Institute Professorship in Sinology. Stanford matched the gifts, which fund an endowment for the institute, Saller said.
Stanford, near Palo Alto, California, chose to devote the professorship to classical poetry because it needed a scholar in that field, said Saller, who is also director of the school’s Confucius Institute. There “are absolutely no Chinese fingerprints” on the search, now in its final stages, to fill the chair, he said.
“It’s convenient for everyone concerned that the position ended up being something that isn’t controversial in any contemporary political way,” Sommer said.
Prized Relationship
Hanban prizes the Stanford relationship too much to jeopardize it by interfering with academic freedom, Saller said. Hanban officials “are very interested in getting a foothold at Stanford,” he said. “Many parties in China would love the recipe for creating Stanford and Silicon Valley.”
Stanford President John Hennessy “has not been involved in that institute or any of the negotiations related to it,” said Lisa Lapin, a university spokeswoman. Hennessy declined to be interviewed.
Hanban pays the way for U.S. college administrators to attend its annual conferences in China as well as cultural showcases. More than 300 university presidents, and 2,000 directors and teachers at Confucius Institutes, attended the 2010 Shanghai World Expo at Hanban’s expense, according to its annual report.
Annual Trips
The trips accommodate the desire of higher-education officials to learn about modern China and motivate them to support the institutes, Hanban’s Chen said.
David Daniel, president of the University of Texas at Dallas, and Dennis Kratz, dean of its school of arts and humanities, visited the 2010 Expo courtesy of Hanban. Kratz spurred creation of a Confucius Institute at UT-Dallas in 2007.
Daniel often visits Asia to speak about his work as a civil engineer, and the inviting organization typically pays his way, said Susan Rogers, vice president for communications.
Hanban, which provides a minimum of $100,000 a year for the UT-Dallas institute, didn’t set conditions on programs, Kratz said. Institute offerings have ranged from Mandarin classes for American families with adopted Chinese children to a symposium on translating Chinese literature.
Asked if he would seek Hanban funding for a conference on Tibet, Kratz said, “If I wanted to do a conference on something like that, I have multiple places where I’d look for funding.”
Foreign Gifts
Organizations such as the Japan Foundation, Germany’s Goethe Institute and France’s Alliance Francaise also promote their national cultures and languages. The Korea Foundation has endowed two chairs in Korean Studies at Stanford, the second with a $2 million gift in 2005. Hanban is unique in mandating a physical location at each campus, Nylan said.
Foreign gifts to U.S. universities have stirred waves over the years. A Taiwanese foundation offered Berkeley $3 million in 1996 for a center for Chinese studies -- provided that it was named after Chiang Ching-kuo, who served as director of Taiwan’s secret police before fostering free speech as president. Berkeley balked, and funding was suspended.
The University of California at Los Angeles in 1997 declined a $1 million gift from the Turkish government for a chair in Ottoman history after Armenian scholars complained about a requirement that the new professor “maintain close and cordial relations with academic circles in Turkey.”
Maryland, Michigan
The University of Maryland founded the first Confucius Institute in the U.S. in November 2004, and other public schools soon followed. Each institute has a partner university in China, which typically provides the institute’s assistant director and teachers and is represented on its board. Stanford’s partner is Peking University, considered one of China’s best.
The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has one of the most lucrative deals among public universities for its Confucius Institute specializing in performing arts. Hanban agreed to give $250,000 annually from 2009 to 2014, along with traditional Chinese musical instruments and artifacts, and funding for two staff members to organize arts programs.
The institute sponsored an October 2010 lecture on Uyghur popular music and minority nationalism in China, said director Joseph Lam, a music professor. “We have autonomy,” he said. “We run the institute as a UM academic and artistic unit.”
‘Ambiguous Initiative’
When the University of Chicago created a Confucius Institute in 2009-2010, more than 170 faculty members signed a petition objecting to it as an “academically and politically ambiguous initiative” established without the faculty Senate’s consent.
“I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Center for East Asian Studies and only found out about this institute on the day it opened,” said Bruce Cumings, a professor of modern Korean history, who signed the petition.
The institute was merely a “tag-on” in the letter, which focused on other university plans, said institute director Dali Yang, a political science professor. Still, “we do take those concerns very seriously.”
Chicago’s institute supports research and teaching Mandarin and sponsors events such as an October talk by a senior civil servant in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. While Hanban broached the idea of funding a professorship, “we felt our current model would be more appropriate,” Yang said. He declined to say how much Hanban pays for the institute.
Cornell University spurned an early overture from Hanban, said Ding Xiang Warner, an associate professor of Asian Studies. Similarly, Columbia vetoed a Hanban proposal around 2003 for a Confucius Institute to hold community Chinese classes. The university didn’t regard such outreach as vital to its mission, said Lening Liu, director of Columbia’s Chinese language program.
Research at Columbia
Five years later, the Hanban proposed funding for research and/or an endowed professorship, Liu said. Columbia rejected the professorship -- which would have required it to match the gift -- and agreed to the research component, Liu said. Hanban is paying as much as $1 million over five years, Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby said.
Because faculty members complained that the name Confucius Institute gives a false impression that Confucianism -- also a key element of Japanese and Korean culture -- is limited to China, Columbia asked Hanban to change the title to “Institute of Chinese Studies,” said Liu, who is also director of the institute at Columbia.
Hanban refused and Columbia’s Confucius Institute, the first in the Ivy League, began operating in 2010. It doesn’t have a website. Liu runs it out of his office, which he shares with a colleague in the Chinese-language program.
Space Issue
“Hanban is not very happy with this,” Liu said. He met with Hanban officials in Beijing this year to “make sure they understand we are working on the space issue.”
Columbia’s institute has “total independence” to select research projects, Liu said. It co-sponsored a conference in April on photographer Robert Capa’s images of China and another in May on how to adapt Mandarin instruction for students in different countries, Liu said. It plans a workshop this year on the legal system in the late Qing dynasty, which ended in 1912.
The institute could address more sensitive topics as long as they are not politicized, Liu said. In the event of a dispute between Columbia and Hanban, their agreement gives the university the final say, he said. “If the Hanban tries to interfere, we won’t back off.”
‘Vaguest of Negotiations’
In 2007, Hanban proposed a Confucius Institute at the University of Pennsylvania to teach Chinese to the community through the Graduate School of Education. The proposal was withdrawn in 2009 because some China scholars were upset that Hanban was bypassing them, said Frank Chance, associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies. The opponents viewed the proposal as a pretext to bring Chinese students to the U.S. and “shoehorn” them into the university’s selective graduate programs, he said.
Now, the university and Hanban are having preliminary discussions about a research-oriented Confucius Institute in partnership with elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, Chance said. While some faculty members favor it, others are “adamantly opposed,” he said.
“There’s a kind of internal struggle going on that up to this point has prevented anything getting beyond the vaguest of negotiations.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Golden in Boston at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman

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