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Should the Chinese government be in our classrooms?

May 1, 2017

By Richard Bernstein

New York Review of Books, April 28, 2017 - Since their beginning in 2005, Confucius Institutes have been set up to teach Chinese language classes in more than one hundred American colleges and universities, including large and substantial institutions like Rutgers University, the State Universities of New York at Binghamton and Albany, Purdue, Emory, Texas A & M, Stanford, and others. In addition, there are now about five hundred sister programs, known as “Confucius Classrooms,” teaching Chinese in primary and secondary schools from Texas to Massachusetts.

But while the rapid spread of these institutes has been impressive, in recent years their unusual reach in the American higher education system has become increasingly controversial: Confucius Institutes are an official agency of the Chinese government, which provides a major share, sometimes virtually all, of the funds needed to run them. Though they are housed in US institutions, their curriculum is largely shaped by Chinese guidelines. Moreover, they have often been set up in secretive agreements with host institutions, which has caused Western scholars to question whether their universities are ceding undue control to a foreign government—in this instance, a foreign government well known for aggressively propagandizing its official views, censoring dissenting opinions, and imprisoning those who express them.

Responding to such complaints, a number of schools, including the University of Chicago, Penn State, and McMaster University in Canada, have closed their CIs down. The University of Chicago, for example, did so in 2014 after some one hundred faculty members signed a petition saying that the CIs were incompatible with the “values” of the University. “This is really an anomalous sort of arrangement,” Bruce Lincoln, one of the organizers of the petition, told Inside Higher Ed, “where an entity outside the university and a powerful entity and an entity that has strong interest in what’s taught is in effect seriously influencing who’s teaching and what’s taught under our name and inside our curriculum.”

Now the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group whose members are mostly American university professors, has issued the most complete report on the CIs to date, a detailed 177-page document called “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.” The NAS study, which was conducted by Rachelle Peterson, the group’s director of research projects, comes to conclusions similar to those of a study by the American Association of University Professors three years ago, and it makes similar recommendations: that the CIs either be closed or reformed. (There are about ten CIs in Canada, where the Association of University Teachers three years ago likewise recommended that they be reformed or closed.)

Among the NAS report’s findings are that CI teachers face “pressures to avoid sensitive topics” like Tibet, Taiwan, or China’s human rights record; that the teachers, recruited and trained in China, adhere to Chinese restrictions on speech; and that there is an absence of “transparency” in the CIs’ operations. Peterson visited twelve CIs in New York and New Jersey and almost all of them refused to make their contracts with the Chinese government public; administrators at some of them refused even to talk to Ms. Peterson or to allow her to visit classrooms. The NAS report also echoes concerns expressed by earlier critics of the CIs that the Chinese funding they attract has given universities a strong financial incentive to host them, to the point that some universities may find it hard to close their CIs “without jeopardizing other financial relationships.” Instead, there is an interest in presenting “China in a positive light” and in focusing “on anodyne aspects of Chinese culture,” glossing over “Chinese political history and human rights abuses.”

The CI program is supervised and controlled by the Chinese government. The supervisory body is the Office of Chinese Language Council International—the Hanban for short—which is a department of the Chinese Ministry of Education (although it is ultimately supervised by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, whose former head, Li Changchun, has been quoted in newspaper articles calling the CIs “part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy”). The senior official in charge, Liu Yandong, is a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Hanban provides subsidies—generally around $100,000 each year for the five-year duration of a contract—to participating institutions. It screens the teachers, all of them Chinese nationals, trains them, pays their salaries and airfares, dispatches them to the institution in question, and in most cases designs the curriculum. It also sends a Confucius Institute director who shares responsibility for running each program with a local co-director.

Yet it is hard to identify the specific threat the institutes pose. The NAS report does not contain what the organization’s director, Peter Wood, calls any “smoking guns” showing some egregious violation of academic principles, or even much in the way of widespread opposition from faculty or students. Indeed, the report contains testimonials from American participants in the program who deny they have felt any pressure from China to adhere to the country’s line, or any threats of losing their contracts and subsidies if they don’t.

“My sense is that our CI is not really doing anything nefarious,” David Stahl, a professor of Japanese literature and a CI board member at SUNY Binghamton, told Peterson. “I think, actually, given the terrible state of state funding for SUNY, it’s benefited us greatly.” Stephen Dunnet, an administrator at the University at Buffalo, told her, “It’s shameful that the only way we can offer Chinese in the Buffalo school district—which is almost bankrupt—is that we have to ask the Chinese…  There is no way for them to learn Chinese if not for this program.”

So what, then, is the terrible danger? What worries many critics of the CIs is not that they will somehow be able to establish pro-China propaganda departments inside the American academy, but something more subtle—that close relations with a Chinese state agency and dependence on Chinese financial support will give China, not exactly a disinterested party, a strong say in how the country is presented to American elementary schoolchildren and college undergraduates alike.  Chinese officials have extolled the CIs as an admirable and effective way of extending what they refer to as China’s soft power, and this is what makes some critics nervous. Will programs on China have the free, critical inquiry that American academic programs are supposed to have? Given China’s concerted efforts to control the discourse on sensitive topics like Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, it seems unlikely that they could be discussed openly within the precincts of the CIs.

In a 2014 book, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins expressed many of these points, arguing that self-censorship is virtually inevitable; otherwise the American partner institution would jeopardize China’s financial support. Sahlins argues that if prominent institutions like Chicago itself give credibility to the CIs, smaller places, especially those without existing, independent China programs, will be encouraged to set them up also, and as they become an accepted part of the academic scene, China will gain considerable influence over how it is presented in American classrooms. There are precedents for this concern: China has successfully pressured Hollywood to make changes in movies so that they can be shown in the Chinese market, has gotten Internet companies to turn over information about their users to the security police, and has used its economic power to dissuade countries from criticizing its human rights record.

Perry Link, professor emeritus of Chinese literature at Princeton, commented on the current and likely future effects of the “outsourcing,” as the NAS report puts it, of Chinese language teaching to China itself: “I would say mainly two things: 1) It induces self-censorship in CI recipients, which is very effective even in the absence of ‘smoking guns’; and 2) It projects a partial view of China, which incurs a double cost: a) taboo topics are not seen, and b) non-taboo topics would not look so innocuous if they could be seen in full context.”

One of the disturbing aspects of the Confucius Institutes is the secrecy in which their relations to host institutions are often kept. The authors of the NAS report were able, mostly by filing Freedom of Information Requests, to obtain the contracts signed between some of the American schools and the Hanban, and these contracts contain some strange clauses. One such clause, for example, prohibits “any activity conducted under the name of the Confucius Institute without permission or authorization from the Confucius Institute headquarters.” Another indicates a Chinese expectation that the CIs will observe Chinese law. What this means exactly is hard to know, since Chinese law does not extend to American universities, but it certainly sounds as though the American partners would be unable to have a program on, say, Tibet, unless it was prepared to denounce the Dalai Lama. The NAS report cites an incident in 2009 wherein North Carolina State University, which has a CI, rescinded an invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak on campus.

Peterson notes what she calls the “veil of secrecy” that seems to surround at least some of the CIs she visited in New York and New Jersey, which is the reason the NAS had to file FOIA requests to get the contracts signed between the Hanban and some of those institutions. Peterson was, for example, able to make an appointment to meet the CI director at SUNY Binghamtonthis person canceled the appointment a couple of days later, citing too many other responsibilities, then told Peterson that no member of his staff would be able to meet her and that she would be barred from sitting in on a class. A similar series of events took place at SUNY Albany, she says.

At Alfred University, a small private school that has had a CI since 2008, Peterson was sitting in on a class, having, she says, gotten permission from the teacher to do so, when the provost, Rick Stephens, appeared and ordered her to leave both the classroom and the campus right away. (A spokesperson at Alfred, Susan C. Goetschius, said in an email that Peterson “did not follow appropriate protocols as a non-student and/or journalist attending a class. She was asked to leave and she did so.”)

Peterson was cordially received at other campuses. Still, one wonders about this atmosphere of secretiveness at some schools. Do the administrators or the program worry that disclosing their Chinese connections and their need for Chinese funding will give material to critics of the program? Are the Chinese directors appointed by the Hanban, even those at public universities, fearful that they will get questions on human rights in China or Tibet or on how they deal with the subject of the 1989 crackdown?

Then there is the matter of Chinese teachers, selected and trained in China. A recent documentary film on the Confucius Institutes in Canada, called In the Name of Confucius, tells the story of Sonia Zhao, who was sent by the Hanban in 2011 to teach in the CI at McMaster University. When she went to the Hanban in Beijing to sign her contract, Zhao noticed a provision banning practitioners of Falun Gong, the sect that has been ferociously repressed in China. Zhao signed anyway, fearing that not to do so would identify her as the Falun Gong practitioner that she in fact was. She went to Toronto, and after some time living in terror that she would be found out by the Chinese director there, she left the program and got political asylum. McMaster terminated its CI arrangement in 2013.

Zhao’s case might be an unusual one, but if it is true that Falun Gong members are barred from membership, that would be religious discrimination and would appear to violate both American and Canadian law. Reporting on the Zhao case, the Toronto Globe and Mail cited a passage in the Hanban contracts according to which teachers are “not allowed to join illegal organizations such as Falun Gong.” This wording used to be posted on the Hanban’s English-language website, but it was removed after the Zhao case. Zhao says in the Canadian documentary that during their training in China, teachers are instructed in ways to avoid student questions on what are effectively banned topics, like Tibet or Falun Gong itself.   “Don’t talk about that,” she says she was told. “If the student persists, you just try to change the topic or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer.”

The expansion of China’s presence in schools in the US and other countries is taking place at the same time that China itself is intensifying its crackdown on dissent, tightening its censorship of the internet, and publishing prohibitions on what it calls “false ideological trends,” which include promoting that the propaganda machinery calls “Western values.” Recently, the journalist Hannah Beech, writing in The New Yorker, cited a statement by Chen Baosheng, China’s minister of education, who warned that schools in China “are the main target for infiltration by hostile forces,” and he vowed that he would “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes.”

The Confucius Institutes, it will be remembered, are run by an agency under the very Ministry of Education that Chen heads. The Hanban website currently carries reports on the Confucius Institute’s eleventh annual congress, which was held in Yunnan Province last December with 2,200 delegates participating from 140 countries. Several senior Chinese officials, including Politburo member Liu Yandong, gave speeches. On the program was a presentation of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, the country’s plan to build a network of relationships across Eurasia. Chen was the official host of the event.

Again, there’s no “smoking gun” here, but there is a paradox. Chen has had remarkable success in building a presence for China in American (and many other countries’) schools even as he has publicly expressed his determination never to allow Western influence—or, as he called it, “infiltration”—to flow in the other direction.

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