The Debate Over Confucius Institutes

The Debate Over Confucius Institutes

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week, the American Association of University Professors a growing  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:  to read more. —The Editors


Robert Kapp

Robert Kapp began his working career as an historian of twentieth century China at Rice University and the University of Washington. However, his main career contributions have been to the building of U.S.-China relations, most notably through his presidency of the Washington D.C.-based U.S.-China Business Council from 1994 to 2004. He currently serves as Strategic Advisor to the U.S.-China Specialty Group of the global public relations and government relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and as Senior China Advisor to the global law firm K&L Gates LLP. Among other nonprofit commitments, he chairs the China Member Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy and serves on the Advisory Boards of the U.S.-China Education Trust and LinkAsia, an innovative program of LinkTV. Kapp received a Ph.D. from Yale.

Beijing's Confucius Institute effort on American campuses has its ancestry in Republic of China, Republic of Korea, and perhaps other countries’ efforts to “do well by doing good” in American academia. It should not be viewed as uniquely insidious, in spite of China’s exceptionally rapid economic and strategic ascent in recent years. To view the CIs through the prism of a looming Chinese threat to the core elements of American national life, material, military, or moral, is a mistake.

Nowadays, Big China is indeed on a roll, publicly entertaining a “Chinese Dream” of national “rejuvenation,” but at the same time pondering how to be received by others as something more attractive than a gate crasher. The leadership’s steady concern, for the past decade or more, with Public Diplomacy—combined with its bulging coffers and the never-ending reminders of America's Wow Factor on the world stage (LeBron James, “Transformers,” Starbucks)—are leading Official China to grapple with the problem of what defines China for its own inhabitants and what defines China for everyone else on earth.

Lest we forget, China has a gigantic, marvelous cultural repertoire, worthy of world interest and respect. From the first Archaeological Exhibition to visit the U.S. in the 1970s, through the "China: Seven Thousand Years of Discovery" show that dazzled Americans in the 1980s, and ever since, China has quite properly found Americans eager to see and learn more about a wondrous civilization so different from their own.

Moreover,as Big China has gotten bigger on the world stage, learning about China has become a pressing goal for widening swathes of American students, teachers, and administrators.

At the core of that growing interest is the Chinese language itself. Happily for the U.S., there is a big market now for Chinese language study. Anyone who gets into it quickly realizes that Chinese language and Chinese culture are inseparable. We owe it to ourselves to start with the language when we can.

The problem is that, in any educational institution, language instruction costs money and competes for scarce resources. China's willingness to finance a Chinese language instruction worldwide, speaks to that financial need, at least at many less prestigious schools.

On its face, I would argue that expansion of Chinese language instruction in America is a good thing, and that it should be welcomed. If a school can't do it alone, the language-instruction resources made available by a CI should be utilized, assuming that the instructors are competent to teach American students and willing to adhere to a set of commitments to ethically responsible classroom behavior.

These requirements should include a stated commitment to tolerate diverse viewpoints, and a signed commitment not to use any academic threats or pressures against those of divergent political or ethical opinions.

Such clear affirmations of academic freedom should be specified in each school’s agreement with Hanban, the Chinese agency sponsoring Confucius Institutes. If Hanban cannot accept such stipulations, then there should be no agreement. The responsibility for determining that these commitments are being upheld should reside solely in the hands of the host institution.

That said, I favor giving CIs the benefit of the doubt, until specific problems arise at individual institutions. If serious (not spurious or frivolous) complaintsabout the behavior of a CI teacher should arise, the matter should be investigated and handled by the host institution, whose sovereignty should be stipulated and agreed to with the Hanban. Ideally, Hanban would not try to derail such investigations; any threats to pull support would have to be rejected.

I have long felt that a formless fear of a nameless "China Tide" lurks below the surface of the American discourse on China. Noxious emanations from China seem to threaten Americans in their daily lives and in their homes, or to offend their sensibilities: contaminated pet food or doctored medicines; fear of growing throngs of Gucci-gobbling tourists; fear of Chinese workers making what we once made for ourselves; legions of geeky, malevolent cyber-invaders.

For most Americans, China's political system is not a pretty sight, and we would not want it established, or propagated, in our own environment. Should an individual Confucius Institute pursue those goals in the U.S., we would rightly and urgently tell the CI's to go elsewhere.

But that, if I understand it correctly, is not what the CIs are doing. If the CIs are teaching Chinese language effectively to legions of young Americans who would otherwise not have an opportunity to experience that language and to begin to touch China's cultural environment through language, I say good on them. If a CI, or a CI instructor, oversteps the line, host schools should step in, address the problem and push the “reset” button without erasing the whole CI file. To treat the whole CI phenomenon as another alarming surge of the nameless China Tide strikes me as itself an implicit denial, not a defense, of American liberal traditions Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty, but summary or pre-emptive administrative action is something else again.

Finally, for the sake of discussion, I hope others, including working academics, might comment on how subjects involving deeply (but not universally) held religious or poltical beliefs, at any number of American educational institutions operated and funded by religious organizations or religio-political organizations, are treated. The issues raised in this discussion, paradoxically, may turn out not to be solely about China after all.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of Chinese History at the University of California Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2010 and 2013 updated edition), and Co-Editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012). He is a Fellow of the Asia Society, Editor of The Journal of Asian Studies, and Co-Editor of the Asia Section of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He was a co-founder of the China Beat blog (2008-2012), and he has contributed to a wide range of general interest periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Slate, and The Times Literary Supplement (London). He is currently writing a book about the Boxer Uprising and the invasion by armies marching under eight different flags that crushed it.

I have misgivings about Confucius Institutes (hereafter CIs) and hope U.C. Irvine never gets one.  But I may not have much say in this.  Administrators don’t always consult with China studies scholars when trying to decide whether to sign on the dotted line—nor consult with us about terms, which can vary widely.  Moreover, when picking an American director for a CI to share leadership duties with a Beijing-appointed counterpart, U.S. administrators don’t necessarily choose China specialists. Along with more frequently noted worries (that a CI might lobby to prevent a visit by the Dalai Lama or the holding of a workshop on a taboo topic, etc.), these things make me uncomfortable about the CI phenomenon.

Let me be clear, though: there are China specialists I know and respect who had a say in the deals struck to bring CIs to their campuses.  I have friends in the field who are local directors and who assert—and I believe them—that they’ve seen no evidence of ham-handed or even subtle efforts by their Chinese counterpart to interfere with routine or even envelope-pushing activities. Their experiences suggest that visions of CIs as one-size-fits-all entities that are part of a carefully orchestrated nefarious conspiracy are problematic.

An anecdote of my own has similar implications. Some time ago, I found out, but not until just before giving a talk, that the local CI was my visit’s sponsor.  I was annoyed and tweaked my planned lecture to show it. In my new opening, I said that since a CI was sponsoring the event, a few words on Confucius were in order. I found it odd, I said, that China’s ruling party had excoriated Confucius when Mao Zedong headed the country, yet now named institutes in his honor.  The official line on history was still that Mao was better than his anti-Communist rival Chiang Kai-shek, I continued, but the present veneration of Confucius as a national saint fit better with Chiang's worldview than with Mao's.

Was the Beijing-appointed head of the CI outraged? No, she wasn’t even miffed.  She said she loved the talk and I'd be welcome to come back and speak again any time.

So, CIs need not be problematic, if the right terms are struck and held to.  But remember: good terms only lead to good things if both sides make good on their promises. And institutions have to be ready to sever all ties with a CI that interferes with core academic values, even if doing so means losing CI funds and risking the flow of other revenue streams with ties to Beijing.

Is this important? Yes. It’s easy to get addicted to any sort of funding in tough budgetary times. And two words remind us that Beijing sometimes pretends that old promises were never made or if made don’t need to be honored: “Hong” and “Kong.”  The recent on the city should be mandatory reading for anyone considering saying “yes” to a CI.


Perry Link

Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published widely on modern Chinese language, literature, and popular thought, and is a member of the Princeton China Initiative, Human Rights Watch/Asia, and other groups that support human rights. He has authored, among others, the books The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System (Princeton University Press, 2000) and Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament (Norton and Co., 1992); coauthored Chinese course books; and edited several books including Two Kinds of Truth: Stories and Reportage from China by Liu Binyan (Indiana University Press, 2006). He coedited, with Andrew J. Nathan, The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People—In Their Own Words by Zhang Liang (Public Affairs Press, 2001). His published essays include “Corruption and Indignation: Windows into Popular Chinese Views of Right and Wrong” for the American Enterprise Institute’s De Tocqueville on China project in 2007, and “Whose Assumptions Does Xu Bing Upset, and Why?” in Persistence and Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing (Princeton University Press, 2006). His latest book is An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Harvard , 2013).

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?

Winston Lord

Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord had been chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, vice-chairman of the International Rescue Committee, and chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s National Commission on America and the New World.From 1973 to 1977, he was Director of the Policy Planning Staff. Ambassador Lord was a Foreign Service Officer from 1961-67, during which time he was assigned in Washington to the Congressional relations, political-military, and economic affairs staffs, and abroad in Geneva. He has also served in the U.S. Government outside the Department of State as Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor (1970-73), on the National Security Council staff (1969-70), and on the Policy Planning Staff in International Security Affairs at the Defense Department (1967-69).From 1977 to 1985, Ambassador Lord was president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also has been a member of the Asia Society, the American Academy of Diplomacy, the America-China Society, and the Aspen Institute of Distinguished Fellows. Among the awards Ambassador Lord has received are the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award and the Defense Department’s Outstanding Performance Award.After graduating magna cum laude from Yale University in 1959, Ambassador Lord obtained an M.A. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1960. He has received Honorary Doctorate degrees from Williams College, Tufts University, Dominican College, and Bryant College.

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.

Jerome A. Cohen

Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University School of Law since 1990 and co-director of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute, is a leading American expert on Chinese law and government. A pioneer in the field, Professor Cohen began studying China’s legal system in the early 1960s and from 1964 to 1979 introduced the teaching of Asian law into the curriculum of Harvard Law School, where he served as Jeremiah Smith Professor, Associate Dean, and Director of East Asian Legal Studies. In addition to his responsibilities at NYU, Professor Cohen served for several years as C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he currently is an Adjunct Senior Fellow. He retired from the partnership of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP at the end of 2000 after twenty years of law practice focused on China. In his law practice, Professor Cohen represented many companies and individuals in contract negotiations as well as in dispute resolution in China. He continues to serve as an arbitrator and expert witness in disputes relating to China and to Chinese in the United States.Professor Cohen has published several books on Chinese law, including The Criminal Process in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-63 (Harvard University Press, 1968), People’s China and International Law (Princeton University Press, 1974) and Contract Laws of the People’s Republic of China (Longman Group, 1988). In addition, he has published hundreds of scholarly articles on various topics as well as a book, China Today and Her Ancient Treasures (Henry N. Abrams, 1975), co-authored with his wife, Joan Lebold Cohen, and a regular series of journalistic opinion pieces for various newspapers. In 1990, he published Investment Law and Practice in Vietnam. He continues his research and writing on Asian law, specifically focusing on legal institutions, criminal justice reform, dispute resolution, human rights, and the role of international law.Outside academia, Professor Cohen has served in government, first as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. from 1958 to 1959 and then as a full-time consultant to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1959. He has also testified at many congressional hearings on China.Professor Cohen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale College (B.A. 1951). He spent the academic year 1951-1952 as a Fulbright Scholar in France and graduated, in 1955, from Yale Law School, where he was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal. He was Law Secretary to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court in the 1955 Term and Law Secretary to Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court in the 1956 Term.

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.

Isabel Hilton

Isabel Hilton is a London-based international journalist and broadcaster. She studied at the Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University and at Fudan University in Shanghai before taking up a career in written and broadcast journalism, working for The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian, and the New Yorker. In 1992 she became a presenter of the BBC’s flagship news program, “The World Tonight,” then BBC Radio Three’s cultural program “Night Waves.” She is a columnist for The Guardian and her work has appeared in the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Granta, the New Statesman, El Pais, Index on Censorship, and many other publications. She is the author and co-auothor of several books and is founder and editor of, a non-profit, fully bilingual online publication based in London, Beijing, and Delhi that focuses on the environment and climate change. Hilton holds two honorary doctorates and was awarded the OBE for her work in raising environmental awareness in China.

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 had been excised. I wish I could believe that it was just coincidence.

Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative Literature, and Chinese at Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth College.In 1974, Mirsky moved to England. From 1993 to 1998 he was based in Hong Kong as the East Asia editor of The Times (London). Previously he wrote for The Observer, The Economist, and The Independent. He is a regular writer for The New York Review of Books, Literary Review, and The Spectator, as well as a contributor to a range of other journals.Mirsky broadcasts frequently on radio and TV and was part of the BBC team in China during the Queen of England's visit in 1986. He has accompanied Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries to Beijing, has interviewed the Dalai Lama, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Lee Teng-hui, and has visited Tibet six times throughout the course of his long residence and travel in Asia.Mirsky has lectured to the Royal National Defense College, the Institute for International Affairs, and at many universities. In 1989, he was named British newspapers' International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the Tiananmen uprising. In 1999, Dr. Mirsky was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard and in 2002 he was the I.F. Stone Fellow in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Why does Columbia University have a Confucius Institute? It is well-staffed with departments and programs on China, including language, where I studied it in the mid-1950s. Here in London, at , where the director has evaded proper debate on its CI, for years students interested in China have walked down the road to the School of Oriental and African studies to learn Chinese. Whether Chinese has a magnificent culture or not is neither here nor there. What is both here and there is that Beijing threatens, usually sucessfully, those who disobey its commands. Even agreed to snub, or "sacrifice," an official visit from the Dalai Lama to keep on some sort of unexplained good terms.

Steven I. Levine

Steven I. Levine is a retired professor of Chinese politics and history. His recent books include Arc of Empire: America's Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), co-authored with Michael H. Hunt, and Mao: The Real Story (Simon & Schuster, 2012), whose primary author is Alexander V. Pantsov.

As Perry Link notes in his contribution to this forum, as part of the Tiananmen Initiative Project I launched last fall to encourage commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, I wrote to over 200 Confucius Institute directors. “On behalf of an international group of China scholars and others, I am writing to ask that your Confucius Institute mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of liu si with a public event such as a lecture, a teach-in, a roundtable discussion or the like that addresses the relevant historical and contemporary issues. In The Analects (2:24) Confucius himself said, “Not to act when justice commands, that is cowardice.” We appeal to your conscience and sense of justice to act with courage.” With the exception of one positive message, the lack of any other response suggests that expediency and cowardice rather than conscience and justice are the hallmarks of the CIs. Not surprising in view of their provenance and the role they play in China's cultural diplomacy.

A confession. In 2007, without having given the matter sufficient thought, I myself, then an associate director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, shared responsibility for a successful application to the to establish a Confucius Institute at my university, a typically underfunded state university with a woefully inadequate Asian Studies program. Our institutional poverty rather than our greed motivated us. We pledged to ourselves to brook no interference from Beijing in what we did. As far as I am aware, there has been none except, of course, in terms of the recruitment criteria for teachers in China itself that preclude any who would function as anything other than mouthpieces of the Chinese state.

What I failed to consider at the time, though I should have known better, was what might be called the side effects of the seemingly benign CI medicine that Beijing prescribed for the financial deficiency disease from which my institution suffered. Of course, as others have noted, there is the inherent danger of self-censorship, which may or may not even operate at a conscious level. Just as important is that the CIs function to conceal the ugly features of a repressive regime whose relentless depredations against its own people as well as its increasingly truculent international behavior require no recitation to readers of this website.

Chinese culture and language are undoubtedly magnificent contributions to world culture. Yet there are surely other ways than accepting handouts from Beijing to bring them to our students and our fellow citizens. Russia, too, has a great culture and language. Yet would we have blithely accepted Pushkin Institutes on our campuses funded by the murderous Stalinist autocracy? King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty was a great figure in Korean history and culture. Would we accept King Sejong Institutes on our campuses funded by the tyrannical regime in Pyongyang?

There are better ways to partake of China's cultural heritage than to sacrifice our integrity.

David Wertime

David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language web site that analyzes Chinese media. Founded in December 2011, Tea Leaf Nation was acquired in September 2013 by the Foreign Policy Group, a division of the Washington Post Company.David is also a ChinaFile Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a full-time employee of the FP Group.Before founding Tea Leaf Nation, David practiced law in New York and Hong Kong. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in Fuling, China from 2001 to 2003.David is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School. He was born in Abington, Pennsylvania and raised in suburban Philadelphia. He currently lives in Washington, DC.

I have not had any first-hand experience with Confucius Institutes, but I have been on what some might call the other side of the relationship. From summer 2001 to April 2003, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer who taught English and Western culture at a small teachers' college in Fuling, a small industrial city in Southern China.

I was one of approximately 80 new Volunteers in China that year. My training, conducted in the Sichuanese city of Leshan by a team mostly comprising current or former Volunteers and Chinese nationals, did not dwell much on political questions. When it did, I recall it focusing on how to avoid offending our Chinese hosts. That included being extremely cautious when discussing the "three T's": Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan. (I remember being told nothing about how we were to speak of the United States, although we were encouraged generally to comport ourselves in a way that didn't bring shame on our country.)

The advice about Chinese sensibilities was almost certainly well-meaning, and practical, at least in a narrow sense. A clumsy, premature lurch into such sensitive topics by a new Volunteer (one after all sent by U.S. authorities) would only have alienated our hosts. One colleague told me how he had attempted to discuss the 2001 Hainan spy plane incident in an earlier semester by highlighting how well the downed Americans seemed to be getting on with their Chinese minders. He said the atmosphere in the classroom quickly turned toxic; some students began to cry, others stood to denounce him, and still others walked out. They thought he was depicting China as weak. He told me he never taught that group again. It was hard to put that anecdote out of my mind as I planned my own lessons.

Authorities in Fuling also seemed aware of what might go "wrong." Peace Corps trainers told us to assume we were monitored. I formed some warm friendships with some of my students, who were scarcely younger than I, and in my second year they told me the Communist Party Secretary at the school had warned students to stay away from the foreign teachers, advice many of them cheerfully ignored. Near the end of our stay, the dean of our English department introduced me and my fellow Volunteers to a friendly, portly man from the local Public Security Bureau, who the dean said had been keeping tabs on us. This wasn't an effort to intimidate; odd as it sounds, I think it was meant to showcase the pains our hosts had taken to handle us carefully and to keep us safe.

I don't know what specific instructions CI instructors receive before they touch down in the United States, but I would not be surprised if it were couched in similar terms. I would bet they are asked to focus on keeping dialogue "constructive" and "positive" and to avoid letting students or colleagues be "disrespectful." As we debate the relative value of Confucius institutes, one acute question is at what point laudable cross-cultural sensitivity becomes a self-serving acceptance (or promotion) of a particular political status quo. If there is simply no room at all for respectful criticism or even friendly discussion of a certain question, that indicates the topic has been too severely ring-fenced. In such a case, American educators do no service by observing existing boundaries. They may tell themselves they are being sensitive, or practical, but they're really just caving in. And their students—Americans, Chinese, and everyone else—probably notice.

Right now, the most important relationship in the world is between the U.S. and China. Like any relationship, it won't blossom if both parties play it entirely "safe." I think people respect tough questions, at least coming from those with an awareness of the other's culture and life experience. Since we are playing host to Confucius Institutes, and not the other way around, I think it's fair to ask staff members there to engage topics that are important to the students whom they purportedly serve. If a CI instructor happens to hold a view in line with Beijing's, the instructor should at least advance an argument. (I note the absence of anyone from a CI in this particular thread.) I told my students in China they were free to ask me any question at all, and they often asked very pointed questions about American life. Confucius Institutes should be held to the same standard.

From time to time, we should be able to tell our friends what they don't want to hear. If we can't, perhaps they're not our friends after all.

Matteo Mecacci

Matteo Mecacci served as a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (on its Foreign Affairs Committee) as well as an elected official of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly. Prior to taking up the Presidency at International Campaign for Tibet, he supervised elections in Georgia as the Head of Mission for the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) for the Presidential Elections in Georgia.Mecacci was elected Chairperson of the Italian Parliamentary Intergroup for Tibet after being voted in as Deputy for the Radical Party on the Democratic Party lists at the 2008 general elections. In November 2009, he organized the 5th World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet in Rome, which hosted the Dalai Lama and established an International Network of Parliamentarians on Tibet (INPaT). He became Co-Chair of the network in June 2010. He was a member of the Tibetan Election Observation Mission in March, 2011 when the Tibetan community in exile undertook elections for the Central Tibetan Administration leadership.Mecacci served as the representative of the Transnational Radical Party and No Peace Without Justice at the United Nations in New York from 2000 to 2008. He was part of a coalition of international NGOs advocating the reform of the United Nations—in particular the United Nations Commission on Human Rights—and he was one of the promoters of the International Steering Committee of the Community of Democracies. He studied international law at the University of Firenze.

First, any increase in the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in schools is a positive. And we all benefit from greater understanding of Chinese culture and history (as long as the bad is taught with the good).

The questions for our schools and our society are whether Confucius Institutes (CI) are the only vehicle available to achieve these goals, and whether the price a school pays to accept a CI is too high.

The anecdotal evidence suggests that there can be a negative effect on free and open academic discourse, as evidenced by the American Association of University Professors' letter. CIs may overtly suppress discussion of topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist government, such as Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen: the contract of a Toronto college instructor barred her from discussing the Falun Gong, for instance. CIs may exert undue influence on university decisions: in 2009, North Carolina State disinvited the Dalai Lama after the school’s CI complained. The presence of CIs may result in self-censorship by the school.

In our own investigation, in 2011 the International Campaign for Tibet (while not identifying our Tibet connection) requested resource materials on Tibet from a Confucius Institute at a university in the Washington, D.C. region. Instead of scholarly materials published by credible American authors (not to speak of Tibetan writers) what we received were books and DVDs giving the Chinese narrative on Tibet published by China Intercontinental Press, which is described by a Chinese government-run website as operating "under the authority of the State Council Information Office...whose main function is to produce propaganda products."

Academic freedom is a cherished value in democratic and scientifically productive societies. Given the stakes involved, investigation into the effect of CIs on such freedom is warranted.

Robert Kapp and Jeffrey Wasserstrom are right on the need for requirements on CI operations. They should be clear and uniform across the nation. The associations representing the university presidents and university professors, with relevant stakeholder input from other academic, policy and advocacy communities, should collaborate to create CI standards.

But since universities are self-interested entities who have made themselves financially dependent on CIs, it is appropriate to apply the oversight lever of Congress. Relevant committees should investigate whether the terms of CIs' agreements with universities result in reduced academic discourse and freedom of speech on topics such as Tibet, and whether such agreements or practices violate any laws in relation to publicly-funded universities.

But the problem with Confucius Institutes cannot be remedied by transparency and good governance. No democratic country can ignore their insidiousness, active or potential. CIs should respect the universal value of freedom of expression. If universities instead degrade these values to suit the CI, then they should be forced to find another way to teach Chinese language and culture.

David Schlesinger

Before founding Tripod Advisors, David Schlesinger was Chairman of Thomson Reuters China and was the global information services group’s senior representative in the region. He was responsible for building relationships, providing thought leadership and advising on strategy for operations across Thomson Reuters interests in financial markets, legal and regulatory databases, scientific information and journalism. He was appointed to that role after four years as Editor-in-Chief of Reuters News, running all aspects of the 3,000-journalist strong international news service. Before that, Schlesinger was Global Managing Editor of Reuters news for three years, in charge of the worldwide operations and news editing. Schlesinger joined Reuters Hong Kong bureau in 1987 as a correspondent.From 1989 to 1995, he ran Reuters editorial operations in Taiwan, China and the Greater China region in a series of posts. He then transferred to New York to serve in turn as Financial Editor, Managing Editor for the Americas, and Executive Vice President and Editor of the Americas.Schlesinger has served on the board of ChinaWeb, the parent company of, China’s leading business/investing portal.He is active in the World Economic Forum, where he has served as a member of the International Media Council and the China Agenda Council.

The arguments against the Confucius Institutes are eloquent and impassioned. But let’s try a thought experiment in a different direction.

Let’s cast our minds back some 60 years to the United States in the mid-50s: Senator McCarthy was rampant and Professor Napthali Lewis had his Fulbright grant yanked because his wife—yes, his wife, not even he himself—refused to say if she were a Communist. Senator Fulbright himself said Communists should not be grant holders!

Today, most of us view Fulbright grants as “soft power” of the softest and most benign kind. Freedom from pressure is supposedly assured by an independent presidentially-appointed commission (though one might wonder how truly free from political pressure any commission appointed by a president, whether Chinese or American, can be). Sixty years ago, that freedom from pressure was not in any way assured, and, in fact, in some cases the pressure was overt and bowed to.

Should the Fulbrights have been killed off or shunned in 1954 because of that? Should universities and faculties have refused to participate?

Or should they have worked steadily to change society and the Fulbrights until they became what they are today—which is, one hopes, still just a way-station to further improvement in both.

America’s road from 1954 to 2014 has been long and sometimes fraught. China’s changes too in those 60 years have been breathtaking, of course, and yet Chinese society is still not yet where some of us might want or expect it to be.

By all means, universities must be completely transparent and vocal about the Institutes’ funding agreements and any pressures, subtle or overt. Universities must encourage vigorous debate and teach-ins about Tiananmen and Tibet and Falun Gong even if these aren’t held at the Institutes themselves. The debates will resonate; the transparency will have an effect. It just might not be tomorrow.

I wasn’t alive to experience the America of 1954; I won’t be alive to see the China of 2074. But I want to have some small influence on that journey, and I believe active, moral, transparent engagement is much preferable to punitive shunning.

We may find China’s early acts of soft power to be clumsy or even abhorrent, but we should remember that these are early steps, and with engagement will come change and understanding on all sides.

In the interests of my own transparency I should say that I advise CCTV News Content, the news agency arm of China’s state broadcaster. While some might see this as compromising my objectivity, I see it as practicing what I preach: my advice, whether taken or not, is always consonant with my personal values around freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And, in time, I hope it will have an effect.

Shai Oster

Shai Oster is an award-winning Hong Kong-based Reporter-at-Large for Bloomberg News. Over nearly two decades as a journalist in China, Europe, and the U.S., he has covered a broad range of economic, business, and social issues. In 2013, he won his second Asia Society Osborn Elliott Journalism Prize and George Polk Award for his role in Bloomberg’s groundbreaking coverage that for the first time documented the fortunes amassed by China’s leaders. The “Revolution to Riches” series revealed the wealth accumulated by the family of President Xi Jinping and traced how business dynasties created by the heirs of Mao’s comrades-in-arms contribute to China’s rising inequality.Before joining Bloomberg, Oster was a Beijing and Hong Kong-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, covering energy and the environment. In 2008, he was the recipient of both the George Polk Award for environmental reporting and Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Award for a series of stories exposing environmental problems linked to China’s Three Gorges Dam project. He was also part of a team of Wall Street Journal reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for International Reporting on China for reports on the adverse impact of China’s growth.Previously, he covered OPEC for Dow Jones Newswires in London and served as Beijing Bureau Chief for Asiaweek magazine. His first job in China was as a Copy Editor at China Daily, the official English-language newspaper in Beijing.A graduate of the Columbia University Journalism School, Oster was born in Jerusalem and speaks Hebrew, French, and Chinese.

The simplest solution: take the Confucius Institutes out of the universities, or take the government out of the Confucius Institutes.

These are nothing like the Goethe Institute or Alliance Francaise or the Cervantes Institute. Those are standalone organizations. They stand or fall on their own merit.

Confucius Institutes borrow the legitimacy of their partner universities. They cloak what they do—whether it's propaganda or not—in the camouflage of their host university. To a typical student, they appear like just another branch of American academia.

Make no mistake, these are organs of the government and therefore organs of the Communist Party, answerable to the dictates of the party. Why pretend they're anything else?

Edward Friedman

Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has worked in rural China, co-authoring Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale University Press, 1993) and Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China (Yale University Press, 2007) and serving as the major editor condensing and re-organizing Yang Jisheng's great study of the Leap era famine Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) for an English-reading public. He also studies Chinese foreign policy, having done work for the United States Government off and on starting in 1965.

[Editor’s note: The following comment first appeared on a private listserv and is reprinted with the author’s permission] CIs come in many forms. For smaller colleges with no budget for teaching the Chinese language, a CI seems a good trade-off with the purpose of serving one's students and their future career opportunities. For some elite institutions, they feel they can make a deal in which the PRC will not dare to interfere because the CCP wants the prestige of the association. For my university, which turned down a CI, it was (a) inconceivable that our faculty be hired by any entity other than our own faculty acting on a merit basis and (b) it was undesirable for a university with serious programs in Taiwan studies and in Tibetan studies to give the CCP government, whose representatives have often intervened to get universities to be anti Dalai Lama and which claims that the nation of Taiwan is part of the PRC, leverage over academic programs. Besides, why would we want amateurs hired by the CCP to teach our students Chinese language and culture when our own faculty already does a great job?


Carsten Boyer Thøgersen

Carsten Boyer Thøgersen is the Director of Copenhagen Business Confucius Institute at Copenhagen Business School and a former diplomat with Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the European Commission. After graduating in 1978 from Aarhus University, Denmark with an M.A. in political science and a B.A. in modern Chinese language, Thøgersen’s entire career has focused on Chinese affairs and China where he was posted for more than 20 years. From 1981 to 1985 Thøgersen was Associate Professor in international politics and Director and founder of China Information Service at Aarhus University. After one year as manager in the China Division of Danish Turnkey Dairies Ltd. in 1986 Thøgersen was posted at the Danish Embassy in Beijing and from 1988 at the EU Delegation in Beijing. From 1992 to 1996 Thøgersen was with the EU Commission’s Southeast Asia and China Division in Brussels. From 1997 Thøgersen was Head of Department for Commercial and Economic Affairs at the Danish Embassy in Beijing, in 2003 Consul-General in Guangzhou, in 2005 Consul-General in Shanghai and in 2009 Head of the China Task Force at Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. Thøgersen has written and edited a number of books on Chinese affairs. In 2012, as senior research fellow at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Thøgersen did the first translation into a Western language of a rare interview which Xi Jinping, then Governor of Fujian Province, gave to the magazine Zhonghua Ernü in 2000.

[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.


Sebastian Heilmann

Sebastian Heilmann is the founding director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a large new China think tank in Berlin, and professor of Chinese political economy at the University of Trier, Germany. His research and publications focus on China’s political system and political economy. With Elizabeth J. Perry, he co-edited the volume Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China (Harvard University Press, 2011). His book China's Foreign Political and Economic Relations: An Unconventional Global Power (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), co-authored with Dirk H. Schmidt, brings a European perspective to the international debate on China’s global rise.

Overall, the CI issue looks much less serious (and much less ideologically charged) from a European perspective. CIs appear rather marginal even in language training and even more so in public debate about China. Strikingly, the profile of their activities and events tends to vary strongly from place to place: from very stale or passive to surprisingly open-minded and colorful.

Through a former colleague who advised Hanban, I was told how chaotic their internal set-up is and how dissatisfied political leaders are with the CIs' lack of positive impact abroad. There even was talk that the whole Hanban and CI set-up will have to be overhauled since some decision-makers now perceive CIs as a misguided initiative of the previous Hu-Wen administration (2002-2012). I cannot verify all this inside talk. But a serious internal debate seems to have started around Hanban's functions and efforts.

As to Germany (which pursues rather broad-based economic, diplomatic, scientific and cultural relations with China) CIs cannot be seen as a success here since they create only an extremely limited public impact and are seen with quite some general distrust within most universities and also in society (educational and cultural circles, the media) at large. However, the overtones of great power rivalry with China (or cold war allusions) that appear to drive parts of the U.S. debate about CIs, are mostly missing in Europe and Germany.

The Editors

ChinaFile is a new not-for-profit, English-language, online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. We hope to help facilitate a broad, well-informed, nuanced, and vibrant public conversation about China in the U.S. and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.Coverage of China has proliferated and become more diffuse. Some coverage deserves more attention than it gets. Some gets more attention than it deserves. ChinaFile’s editors bring order, clarity, and a discerning if affectionate eye to the flood of commentary and reporting on China.Every day, we sift through coverage of China to highlight and translate pieces that are particularly insightful, well-reported, informative, or otherwise worth reading.Some China coverage is built to last. We find it, we archive it, and we make it easy for you to use and enjoy. Our current partners include: The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Caixin, The Hong Kong Economic Journal, the websites, Tea Leaf Nation, and CNPolitics, and the bilingual arts and literature magazines LEAP and Chutzpah.When we come across underreported subjects, innovative, elegant storytelling, sharp analysis, experts interested in engaging newcomers, Chinese analysts who want to write for international audiences, or questions we feel haven’t been adequately explained by other publications, we commission and produce our own content. Our contributors are freelancers and regular columnists working both inside and outside of China.

Due to the length of this thread, we are continuing the conversation on a second page. Please visit: to read more.

Robert Kapp began his working career as an historian of twentieth century China at Rice University and the University of Washington. However, his main career contributions have been to the building...
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of Chinese History at the University of California Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford,...
Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published...
Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord...
Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University School of Law since 1990 and co-director of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute, is a leading American expert on Chinese law and government. A pioneer in...
Isabel Hilton is a London-based international journalist and broadcaster. She studied at the Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University and at Fudan University in Shanghai before taking up a...
Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Steven I. Levine is a retired professor of Chinese politics and history. His recent books include Arc of Empire: America's Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (University of North Carolina...
David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language web site that analyzes Chinese media. Founded in December 2011, Tea Leaf Nation was acquired in September 2013 by the Foreign...
Matteo Mecacci served as a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (on its Foreign Affairs Committee) as well as an elected official of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (...
Before founding Tripod Advisors, David Schlesinger was Chairman of Thomson Reuters China and was the global information services group’s senior representative in the region. He was responsible for...
Shai Oster is an award-winning Hong Kong-based Reporter-at-Large for Bloomberg News. Over nearly two decades as a journalist in China, Europe, and the U.S., he has covered a broad range of economic,...
Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has worked in rural China, co-authoring Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale...
Carsten Boyer Thøgersen is the Director of Copenhagen Business Confucius Institute at Copenhagen Business School and a former diplomat with Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the European...
Sebastian Heilmann is the founding director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a large new China think tank in Berlin, and professor of Chinese political economy at the University...





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