Shut down Confucius Institutes in the US

Why I gave up my academic freedom

This really isn’t that hard:

I’d been invited to give a keynote speech and accept an award at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In a description of my background, I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported. But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed.

The department had given the award annually since 1975. But in the past few years, finances had dwindled and organizers struggled to find the resources to cover the expenses of bringing in a speaker from out of town.

Enter the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated organization that teaches Chinese language and culture and sponsors educational exchanges, with more than 500 branches around the globe. The branch at Savannah State, founded four years ago, agreed to sponsor the speech.

On campuses across the United States, funding gaps are leaving departments with little choice but to turn to those groups with the deepest pockets — and China is keen to offer money, especially through its global network of Confucius Institutes. But when academic work touches on issues the Chinese Communist Party dislikes, things can get dicey.

Indeed. Confucius Institutes are controlled (de facto) by the Communist Party of China, as part of a lavishly funded global propaganda effort. And the rationale for hosting these things always seems to boil down to money:

Savannah State University does not have a well-funded Asian studies department, and as university administrators told me when I was there, its students and members of the surrounding community have few opportunities to travel abroad. The young man working at the front desk of my hotel in Savannah told me he was going to China this summer with a dance troupe, on a trip sponsored by the Confucius Institute. Without institute funding, the dancers would probably never see China.

And so, schools like Savannah State must walk a fine line. “Often the American co-director is interested in supporting academic freedom and trying to manage the Confucius Institute in a way that is constructive,” says Peterson. Each Confucius Institute has two co-directors, one American and one Chinese. But that’s “really hard to do. And in some cases, well near impossible.”

Australia is even more willing to compromise on this issue:

In the US, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has led the charge against Confucius Institutes. In February, he wrote to four universities in Florida, urging them to terminate their agreements with Hanban in Beijing. Texas A&M University closed its Confucius Institute in April following a bipartisan recommendation from two congressmen. […]

Australian universities are different from their American counterparts, not least because of our tertiary sector’s greater dependence on Chinese international students. Rubio’s approach should have no sway here.

Strange. The county’s Confucius Institutes are designed to teach Australians, not Chinese. The large number of Chinese international students on Australian campuses is hardly relevant in this context, unless of course the implication is that Australia should be careful not to hurt those students’ feelings. In other words: “Nice $22 billion international education sector you’ve got there. Be a shame if something, you know, happened to it.”

In my China Matters brief I outline seven policy recommendations for Australian universities. Above all, those that host a Confucius Institute need to consider more stringent safeguards. Transparency is important to combat propaganda and will help assuage public concerns about Confucius Institutes.

I heartily agree that transparency is important, but the emphasis on combating propaganda and helping assuage public concerns is odd here. The purpose of transparency is more about preventing abuses and violations by the organization in question.

But university autonomy must be maintained, and Australia must avoid the precedent set in the US. The decision whether to extend or terminate an agreement with Hanban is a university’s alone to make. To uphold academic freedom means to safeguard campuses from undue government influence – be it from the PRC, the US, or even the Australian Government.

But shielding universities from US or Australian government influence evidently means exposing them to Communist Party influence. There is no neutral ground here and no way to avoid choosing sides.

Australians need opportunities to learn Mandarin, and Confucius Institutes provide classes taught by trained native speakers. Successive governments have committed to improving Asian literacy among Australians. But they have not – and in the foreseeable future will not – commit the needed millions of dollars to alternative Mandarin education.

For the time being, Confucius Institutes are an imperfect solution to help fill that need.

In other words: money, money, money.

Here’s three more words for you:

Shut. It. Down.

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