The Debate Over Confucius Institutes
The Debate Over Confucius Institutes
A ChinaFile Conversation
Last week, the American Association of University Professors joined a growing chorus of voices calling on North American universities to rethink their relationship with Confucius Institutes, the state-sponsored Chinese-language programs whose policies critics say are anathema to academic freedom. We asked contributors to discuss the debate. Specifically: the costs and benefits of having a Confucius Institute on a university campus; the economic forces at play; and the role of China in university life more broadly.
Update: Several readers have noted with dismay that this Conversation does not include an entry by someone who works for or with a Confucius Institute. We share this concern. We have solicited responses to our original question—and to the discussion as it has developed—from numerous employees of universities that have Confucius Institutes as well as from people who teach at Confucius Institutes, and people who work with and for Hanban. So far, none of the people in the above categories whom we have approached has been willing or able to contribute. We welcome such contributions.
Update: Due to the length of this thread, we are continuing the conversation on a second page. Please visit: “The Debate Over Confucius Institutes Part II” to read more. —The Editors
Bob Kapp is right that China has a “marvelous cultural repertoire,” that Americans should learn more about it, that Chinese culture is best learned through Chinese language, that Chinese-language programs in North America need more resources, and that it would be nice if China pitched in.
None of that is the point, of course. What the AAUP objects to, rightly, is the problem of “unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”
A few months ago Steven Levine, at the University of Montana, as part of his Tiananmen Initiative Project, wrote to about 200 Confucius Institutes around the world asking what plans they had for marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of June 4, 1989—by any account an important day in modern Chinese history, one that people interested in China should know about. Levine received no responses. Not one. He did hear, informally, that his letter caused consternation on some campuses.
Bob Kapp’s answer to dangers of political interference is that there be “stated commitments” and that if someone “oversteps a line” we fix the problem, “push the reset button,” and move on.
My goodness. Are we still this naïve in our understanding of how self-censorship works? (The view, not the person, is naive.) Do we think it is as open and mechanical as stating commitments, observing lines, and pushing reset buttons?
Let’s do a thought experiment: You are the American director of a Confucius Institute. You have not received any letter from Steven Levine. On your own, it occurs to you that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the June Fourth massacre is approaching. You know that it was indeed a massacre, because you are old enough to remember seeing the videotapes that showed the fire and the blood. So what now? Do you propose a Confucius Institute event to remember the massacre? Of course not. The notion is out of place, indeed far-fetched. So June Fourth passes silently at your CI. Now let’s ask these questions: did anyone overstep a line in prohibiting you from doing something? No. Was any “stated commitment” violated? No. Did you yourself do anything wrong? No. (You may have omitted a moral act but you committed no immoral one.) Can you honestly tell your friend Jeff Wasserstrom that no Chinese counterpart has interfered with you? Yes. Does any re-set button need pushing? No. Everything is normal. “Everything” is “normal.”
In the end, were the AAUP’s worries about “the political aims and practices of the government of China” vindicated? Quite.
I will not be persuaded by an objection that says the June Fourth example is an extreme, and therefore negligible, case, and that there are plenty of other things to talk about in bustling Big China. I will not be persuaded because, if we rule out not just June Fourth but all the other “sensitive” issues—Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, Occupy Central, the Nobel Peace Prize, the spectacular private wealth of leaders’ families, the cynical arrests of rights advocates and sometimes their deaths in prisons, and more—we are left with a picture of China that is not only smaller than the whole but crucially different in nature.
Is it the main goal of CIs to spread abroad an overly rosy portrait of Chinese society, misleading in crucial ways, or is the main goal, as Bob Kapp suggests, to help foreigners learn Chinese? Let’s try another thought experiment. What if the Chinese Language Teachers Association, a U.S. group, wrote a letter to the Hanban saying yes, we badly need teachers, textbooks, and equipment; why don’t you set up a foundation, something like the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, to which we can apply for needed funds? Would the Hanban agree? The AAUP statement calls the Hanban an “an arm of the Chinese state.” Would that arm be ready to reach out with funds alone—in support of language-learning alone?
So far, the Hanban has sent people along with the funds. The purpose of this choice, clearly, is to spread official government views and to give those views a human face. Even massacres can be forgotten behind a winning smile. Are CI teachers selected for their readiness to represent the government? Yes, of course. But it is important to understand that an even stronger dynamic is at work: CI teachers themselves face the same wordless intimidation that you experienced if you did my thought experiment in paragraph six. How much these teachers may or may not agree with their government about massacres, Tibetans, the justifiability of huge fortunes for top leaders, etc. are questions they cannot speak about in public inside China and still more must never utter in front of foreigners while abroad. For them, the penalties for infraction are much steeper than anything an American CI director has to face. Accordingly, for American students in a CI classroom, the difference between a teacher who, inside, completely agrees with government views and one who, inside, might not agree, is almost always invisible. On the surface it appears that all Chinese support their government’s views.
About five years ago the U.S. government made a “pivot” toward Asia whose main point, even if unacknowledged, was to counter aggressive winds from Beijing. The U.S. shift was primarily military even though the visible threat (at the time, anyway) was not especially military. Might the pivot have done more with soft power—the arena in which Beijing was, in fact, already active? For example, can the U.S. not afford its own Chinese-language programs? Do schools need to reach out to Beijing and say yes, we will accept your language teaching and will swallow hard to accept in addition your program to make the world save for autocrats, even if it means misleading our young? One B-2 Spirit Bomber costs about $2.4 billion, and there are about 72 Confucius Institutes in the U.S. What will do more to protect our future? One more B-52 or a few million dollars to every campus that wants an honest Chinese language program?
I am unrestrained in my enthusiasm for Perry Link’s destruction of Bob Kapp’s entry. (Sorry,Bob.)
Indeed, self-censorship on China is becoming a massive problem, ranging from Bloomberg to Hong Kong to visa-seeking academics to contract-seeking business executives, to just about anyone who attends think tank conferences which include Chinese.
On this aspect and all others, Perry’s rebuttal is so eloquent and devastating that I have nothing to add.
Reluctantly, I find Perry’s arguments entirely persuasive. To make full disclosure, I say that as one who, several years ago, received an award from the CI of the University of Hawaii, which, I believe, prided itself on being the first in our country! To its credit it made the award to recognize the importance of political and civil rights for China and welcomed my talk on the subject.
China, of course, has a rich and remarkable cultural heritage, though not one that has always been treated kindly in the modern era. And of course it is a good thing if more people learn Chinese. But many national cultural institutions teach their native languages and propagandize their cultures (in the non-perjorative sense) without occupying places within academic institutions. The Institut Francais, the British Council and the Goethe Institute manage to fulfill their remits outside the walls of the academy, and play their soft power roles, therefore, without raising fears of any conflict with academic freedoms or traditions.
This is a key difference and takes us to the financial condition, certainly of British universities. These now depend heavily on overseas students, of whom the Chinese students are a large cohort. They are welcome. What are not welcome, and there are many examples from around the world, are attempts by Chinese officials to condition intellectual life in the host institutions – be it by discouraging a visit by the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer, or, as happened in one case, vetting the invitation list to a conference on the sage himself – through threats to discourage future Chinese students from enrolling in the university. Such cases are not answered by CI MOUs, since the dependency is real.
I am pleased to hear that Jeff Wasserstrom’s experience was positive. Mine was not. I contributed to a short book for 6th Formers (12th graders) on China, without knowing that it was sponsored by a CI. The chapter was to the length requested, and it was not until I saw a copy at the launch event that I discovered that an entire passage about the work and subsequent arrest of the Lake Tai campaigner Wu Lihong had been excised. I wish I could believe that it was just coincidence.
[Editor’s note: The following comment first appeared on a private listserv and is reprinted with the author’s permission]
After ten years and now 70 plus Confucius Institutes in the U.S. there seem to be no hard facts that any CI has interfered with the academic freedom at the university where it is located. Perry Link then introduces the notion of “self-censorship” – looking at what CIs didn’t do, could have done and takes this “no-action” as evidence of interfering with academic freedom.
Many universities in the U.S.—more than in Europe—are sponsored by private foundations, all with a mission, a profile or a background. This is normal and seldom interferes with academic freedom or halts planned academic activities. I am sure, though, that if you looked at one arbitrary foundation and its background and then listed all academic activities disapproving the values of the foundation that the university – supported by that foundation – could have launched, but didn’t launch, examples would be numerous.
In this context, “self-censorship” is no analysis. It is about attitudes, not about facts.
After serving many years in the Danish foreign service and the EU Commission on Chinese affairs, recently I became director of a Confucius Institute. Like many other Denmark-China and EU-China projects I have been involved in, I see the Confucius Institute as another co-operation project. It is funded and managed 1:1 by the two partners. Following the agreement between the two partners our institute is located in Denmark, follows Danish laws and Danish traditions, including the tradition in Denmark for open debate on any subject. And this is what we are doing on record.
In all co-operation projects—and when you receive funds from donors—you have to be prudent. Attitudes have a sweet taste. Hard facts are hard facts.