The Debate Over Confucius Institutes PART II

Last week, ChinaFile published a discussion on the debate over Confucius Institutes–Chinese language and culture programs affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education—and their role on university campuses. The topic, and several of the responses we posted, resulted in a large number of additional responses, comments, and critiques both off and online. In particular, many readers asked for more specific examples of how Confucius Institutes operate in practice. In response, we continued to solicit contributions from people with firsthand experience of the program, which we had done the previous week with very limited success. 

The original thread became so long that we are posting additional responses, which we continue to welcome, below.

To read the original discussion visit “The Debate Over Confucius Institutes: A ChinaFile Conversation.” 

 —The Editors


Following is a translation of a communiqué originally distributed in French on  September 25th, 2013

The Lyon Confucius Institute (LCI) definitively ceased activities on 23rd September 2013. This situation resulted from a disagreement that had persisted since September 2012 between the Lyon-based administrators of the LCI and the HQ of Confucius Institutes in Beijing (hereafter called the Hanban, an organization for the promotion of Chinese language and culture attached to the Ministry of Education of the PRC).

The LCI was a partnership between the Lyon 2 and Lyon 3* universities, and Sun Yat-sen University (Guangzhou). As with the other Confucius institutes in France and around the world, the LCI was in part subsidised by the Hanban. Its operational costs were also assured by income from the Institute's activities. In addition, the LCI was materially and logistically supported by the Lyon 2/Lyon 3 Universities.

From the very establishment of the Insitute in 2009, the French side (Lyon2/Lyon3), while showing enthusiasm for this partnership that Sun Yat-sen had wanted for some time, had insisted on the Institute's academic and institutional independence. In addition, for legal and deontological reasons, the Institute could not be integrated in the University itself and was not to be implicated in its teaching and research activities. In order to assure this essential separation between a French public university and an entity financed and piloted by the Chinese State, the Institute took the form of an association under the law of 1901 (in other words, a not-for-profit organization).

At the moment of its constitution, this arrangement was not contested by Beijing. For a period of three years, the LCI staged cultural and linguistic activities (lectures, teaching, short-course in China, documentary film festivals) with the primary aim of better acquainting the Lyon public with the realities of contemporary Chinese society.

Tolerated until 2012, it seemed that our institutional and intellectual independence became unacceptable to Beijing. The experience of the past year [to September 2013] appears to confirm a change in policy on the part of the Hanban.

A new director taking his instructions directly from Beijing arrived in September 2012 and questioned the content of our courses and insisted strongly on a deeper integration of the LCI in the University itself. He wanted partnerships with our research centres in the domain of sinology, and held out the promise of PhD scholarships for our students willing to pursue their studies in China, and suggested that the LCI participate in the teaching of the University degree programs.

This interference in the University from an organization emanating from the Chinese state seemed to us inappropriate since it would put in doubt our academic freedom and transgress the spirit and the regulations of the French Republic's higher education system. In hindsight, we suppose that our firm stance in not acceding to these demands explains why in November 2012, the director general of the Hanban, Madame Xu Lin, demanded the resignation of the Chair of the LCI Board and announced without warning the suspension of the Hanban's annual subsidy. Over the course of the past few months, we have tried on numerous occasions to explain that it was impossible to cede to these new and exponential demands.

Supported by the LCI's Board and the Presidence of Lyon 3 University, we have attempted for the past year to reach an understanding acceptable to both parties. Unfortunately the inflexible attitude of the Hanban has prevented all possibility of a compromise.

It is with consternation that we witness the LCI experiment ending in this impasse, all the more so since we have always maintained close and fruitful relations with PRC academics and their universities.

Anyone with experience teaching critical languages like Chinese, Arabic, or Russian at the college level has seen what we might call a “low-equilibrium trap,” a situation where a language program has just enough staff to run a small number of courses, but never gets enough resources to expand. One, maybe two overburdened tenure-track faculty and instructors keep the program afloat, but not much more. In my experience, a Confucius Institute partnership can help Chinese programs avoid that trap.

The CI at University of South Carolina opened in 2008; our partner institution is Beijing Language and Culture University. Without the CI, I don’t see how we could offer our current array of courses. Moreover, there’s no question in my mind that our students have benefited from working with experienced instructors from our partner school.

I have not seen any attempt by the CI to interfere politically at the university. I am sensitive to these issues, in part because I spent a large part of my language training in Taiwan and continue to engage with the scholarly community there.

The issues that have arisen are largely administrative and easily anticipated. Teachers with little experience working in an American university need time to adjust to a different classroom style and to a different type of student. For example, often our CI colleagues are accustomed to teaching students who are enrolled full-time in a Chinese language program. These students are very different from Carolina undergraduates who take 3-4 hours of Chinese per week along with their other classes. Each group of students has a different set of needs, and their academic progress must be evaluated by different standards. It is up to the regular tenured and tenure-track faculty to facilitate that process and make sure our students get the best experience that we can offer them.

Looking ahead, I do worry that some universities will begin to use their CIs as a replacement for a regular language program, effectively outsourcing their teaching responsibilities to Hanban. It’s a strong temptation, given how little outside funding exists for the humanities.

Until a better alternative arises, however, CIs are probably here to stay in the United States, because without them, many public colleges and universities will not be able to expand their Chinese programs. We all would welcome other sources of support, of course. Restructuring and expanding Title VI funding (which supports National Resource Centers) to help more universities might be a good place to start.

Finally, we should not see these issues as unique to Chinese. Funding for the study of Arabic, for example, can raise just as many problems. If colleges rejected all funds tied to regimes with questionable records on human rights and refused to participate in programs that are directly tied to US national security, students would have precious few opportunities to study that language. A broader perspective might also help us think through these issues.

Please note: these views are my own, not my employer’s.

May I just say that the ongoing controversy over Confucius Institutes (CI) in the U.S. and as [Gregory Lee's] note indicates, in France as well, is a cause for some concern. Without having had direct exposure to CI operations either here in Beijing or overseas, I offer a few general remarks.

When foreign language/culture institutions came to China after the early 1970s, universities were the natural hosts. Many of those foreign institutions had nationals from their host countries as directors, some of whom had held government posts before moving to China. There certainly was a long and sometimes troublesome process of mutual accommodation. The net result, however, is that generation after generation of Chinese and Western professionals benefit from the scholars' continued efforts at engagement. There continues to be a demand for such exchange in today's world economy.

The seeming campaign to drive CIs out of university campuses, against the backdrop of an ongoing mood of geopolitical uncertainties, might cause a tit-for-tat response from China. Let's hope not. If it did, that would be most unfortunate. Exchanges in education and science between China and the West positively contributed to the lessening of political and diplomatic tensions between China and most Western countries in the last decades of the Cold War. It would indeed be a net loss for all if educational initiatives, such as language teaching and cultural exchange, fell victim to the current mood of geopolitics.

Were the HQ of CIs incorporated as a not-for-profit entity in the Chinese educational system, rather than a component of the Ministry of Education, foreign suspicions of state interference might have been less tense. Regardless, Hanban or not, China is just still very, very short of individuals capable of navigating the social/political landscapes of Western educational institutions. It ought to be interesting to have a sense of percentage of CIs having a difficult relationship with the institutions where they park.

It may still be worthwhile for CIs in the West to consider 1) changing their legal status within China, 2) renaming themselves, establish as independent and not-for-profit institutions. Would a pinyin name like 'Zhongwen' (and no affix) help? Some may still pick it apart to say that Zhong could be associated with a 'Middle Kingdom' claim of territoriality. Well, there are also those in the Chinese society that define a Western educational institution in China as a Trojan Horse of sorts. Life, in China or the West, cannot be perfect. At the end of the day, it takes sensible political judgement.

The AAUP statement calling on all universities hosting Confucius Institutes to consider closing them immediately appears to be based on a misunderstanding of several important elements of how such programs run in practice. As a faculty member and administrator who has been involved in the founding and operation of two separate CIs—the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington and the William & Mary Confucius Institute—I am in a good position to comment on the recent controversy. AAUP sets out three prerequisites for ensuring that CIs are not impinging in any way on academic freedom on U.S. campuses. I will endeavor to show that these three seemingly clear-cut conditions are more complex than AAUP appears to realize, and that satisfying them all would call into question a wide range of common university programs with international partners.

First, AAUP insists that although there is no concrete evidence of any CI actually engaging in on-campus censorship of China-related programming, the mere fact that Hanban is a Chinese state agency means that recipients of its funding will engage in various forms of “self-censorship” in order to stay on the good side of its leadership. In my own case, I can state unequivocally that I have not experienced any such difficulty. Indeed, when William & Mary student organizations invited the Dalai Lama to speak on our campus in October 2013—just six months after the opening of the William & Mary Confucius Institute—the Hanban leadership understood the situation and continued to support our CI at the same level as before. Much of the commentary in this controversy fails to take into account that Confucius Institutes are just one aspect of any university’s wider programs on China, East Asia, and international affairs. Lectures and conferences on such subjects as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the status of Tibet and Taiwan, or the legitimacy of groups such as Falun Gong take place all the time on our campuses—just not with direct Hanban funding. And this seems like a quite reasonable arrangement: it allows universities to take advantage of Hanban’s generous support for expansion of programs on Chinese language and culture, without restricting freedom of inquiry for our scholars and students to investigate potentially sensitive political and historical topics. AAUP demands that universities must have “unilateral control…over all academic matters” related to the work of CIs, but the reality is that is already the case: no one in China, or any other foreign country, can in the end tell us how to manage our universities. If Hanban were to ask us for changes to our curriculum or adjustments to the topics of our lecture series as a condition for receiving further funding, we would obviously have to stop working with Hanban. It is to the great credit of the Hanban leadership that they simply haven’t made demands of that sort, despite the political difficulties such flexibility can occasionally cause for them within China.

Second, AAUP demands that each university with a CI “afford Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights…that it affords all other faculty in the university.” This seems to rest on a basic misunderstanding of U.S. immigration law. Hanban scholars come to U.S. universities as J-1 exchange scholars or J-1 interns, subject to the rules and regulations governing such visas; they already have the same academic freedom rights while on our campuses as other international visiting scholars. But U.S. universities simply cannot dictate to the foreign governments that send us these scholars—China included—what their domestic labor law or home university governance should look like. The argument for hosting exchange scholars from foreign countries with authoritarian governments from a classical liberal arts perspective—one I happen to embrace—is that in doing so, we expose students and faculty to a full range of world viewpoints and thus prepare our scholarly community for successful global engagement. Such scholars also have the opportunity to experience life in a free society, and return home with a better grasp of what makes the American way of life so special. If the AAUP leadership is arguing against this entire line of reasoning—that we should, in effect, cease all J-1 scholarly exchange programs except with countries rated at or near the top of Freedom House’s democracy rankings—I imagine that there would be much debate about that idea among the AAUP membership. If AAUP is instead arguing that J-1 programs should be stopped only with China, but not with Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Singapore, or any number of other countries where academic governance and labor law fall short of ideal U.S standards, then that argument needs to be somehow justified and substantiated in much more detail.

Third, AAUP demands that all U.S. university agreements with Hanban be made fully public. Since my experience with CIs has been at two public universities, I can quickly confirm that this requirement is already satisfied at UW and W&M: in principle, all of our university contracts with overseas partners are public documents. Now it is quite true that the content of international agreements with non-U.S. partners can involve delicate negotiations to ensure compliance with university rules and U.S. law—but this is an issue with all such agreements, not only those with Hanban. If AAUP wishes on principle to demand that all U.S. university administrations make public all of their international agreements—in short, to ensure that private universities adopt the same policy that is already mandated by definition at public universities—that might be a cause worth debating. If instead the AAUP only wants to ensure that agreements with Chinese partners at U.S. private universities are made public, again one wonders why only the People’s Republic of China, and not any other country with which AAUP may disagree on policy issues, should be subjected to such special scrutiny.

AAUP is absolutely correct to be continually vigilant about potential threats to academic freedom, including those originating from foreign countries. However, the recent AAUP statement on Confucius Institutes, based as it is on several misunderstandings about how CIs work in practice, is in my view counterproductive. In a complex and interdependent world, it can be tempting to wall ourselves off from interactions with partners who have quite different perspectives on political and ethical issues than are typical of many U.S. faculty members. One would think that AAUP, of all organizations, would wish instead to encourage programs that open up new opportunities for faculty, students and the community to engage with diverse international points of view—including those sponsored by Hanban.

The University of Michigan has a vibrant Chinese studies community with a long history and a strong institutional commitment from the university. The Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (LR-CCS), which I direct, recently received a large private endowment (hence its new name). UM has also housed a Confucius Institute on campus for the last five years.  Amid some controversy and faculty opposition, it was established with a specific focus on Chinese arts and culture. It is not involved in language training.

As others have correctly argued, CIs based at major universities with strong Asian Studies program are less likely to close out debate or dominate the discourse on China on campus. Our situation may not be similar to universities with limited resources for Chinese Studies. When I proposed a series of events to mark the twenty-five anniversary of the 1989 Student Movement, the LR-CCS invited the UM-CI to co-sponsor one of the events. They agreed. We regularly co-sponsor events such as film series, which have included films banned on the mainland.

While I personally was not enthusiastic about the presence of a CI on campus, I cannot give specific examples of interference or self-censorship, though I take Professor Link’s warning about the insidiousness of self-censorship seriously. Given that our Center has just received a large gift from a private source and just submitted our next Title VI grant application to the U.S. Department of Education, we must always be vigilant in protecting the principle of academic freedom. Diverse sources of support and a vibrant community of scholars who surely disagree on a number of issues related to China make our work easier. It is a pity that many academic institutions in the U.S., particularly public institutions, do not have these “luxuries.”

It is frequently pointed out that there have been few incidents involving censorship, discriminatory hiring, or other such violations of academic integrity in connection with the activities of Confucius Institutes. (See, for example, Mr. Thøgersen’s contribution to the present debate.) Something has to be said, however, about what is being defined as an “incident” of this type. It seems that without much reflection, “incident” is here understood as an act of such character as to achieve notoriety beyond the educational institution concerned, notably as a report widely disseminated in the public media—in short, a scandal. The oft-publicized complaint of discriminatory hiring against McMaster University brought before the Ontario Human Rights tribunal by an erstwhile CI teacher from China who was an adherent of Falun Gong is a notable example; as is the mobilization of students by the Chinese co-director of the Waterloo University CI to protest the local media’s coverage of a Chinese government repression of a Tibetan uprising.

If, however, we take into account the evidences of acts of similar import that for whatever reason do not receive similar publicity, perhaps because they are too private, parochial, or seemingly insignificant to interest a general public, it then becomes apparent that such incidents of academic malpractice are disturbingly common. For all their obscurity, moreover, events such as the recurrent suppression of topics that are politically taboo in China in a secondary school CI classroom in the US are of major relevance to the question of the academic legitimacy of the Confucius Institute project in general. In the same way, even the prohibition on displaying the Dalai Lama’s portrait in the precincts of the Confucius Institute of the University of Chicago multiplies the significance of interdiction by the power of the icon (ikon). (Quand même, ceci n’est pas un Dalai Lama).

With a view to making the entire dossier public, I have collected a number of such incidents from public media and by communication with persons involved. I would like to make clear the reasons for my temerity in entering a debate about Confucius Institutes: one, that it has everything to do with the challenges CIs pose to academic freedom and integrity in the U.S. and elsewhere and nothing to do with animus to the PRC, the Chinese people, or with some sort of deranged anti-communism; and two, that the understandable reticence of China scholars with ongoing research interests in China to become engaged in criticism of the CI project makes it necessary for people like me to take up these essentially domestic, U.S. issues of academic integrity.

What follows here are a few illustrative examples (with sources noted at the end of each example). Among other reasons I offer them in the hope that readers might inform me ( of any of the like they may have come across, whether in print or from their own experience.

* * *

A scheduled visit of the Dalai Lama was cancelled by the Chancellor of North Carolina State University in 2009, ostensibly because there had been insufficient time to prepare for such an august guest. The director of the NC State Confucius Institute got involved—after the cancellation, he said, as a warning for the future—telling the provost that a visit by the Dalai Lama could disrupt “some strong relationships we were developing with China.” In this connection, the provost observed that a Confucius Institute presents an “opportunity for subtle pressure and conflict” (Bloomberg News: 1 Nov 2011).

* * *

In a personal interview, the Deputy Director of the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) at the University of Chicago observed, with regard to possible public discussions at the Chicago Confucius Institute of Tibetan independence, Tiananmen 1989, or Falun Gong, “I think there is a certain amount of self-censorship.” But fortunately, he said, there is money for that kind of discussion at the Center for East Asian Studies. Apart from the outright admission of “a certain amount of self-censorship” in the Confucius Institute—something like an academic equivalent of being a little bit pregnant—the compensatory suggestion that such contentious issues can be considered elsewhere in the university entails an even more subtle tolerance of intellectual repression. “Permissible censorship” it might be called, as it consists of the notion that censorship may be permitted anywhere in the university, so long as there is somewhere it is not permitted, some place where anything can be said. I have records of a similar dodge—i.e., no Tibet in the CI, but we can always do it elsewhere—from persons of responsibility in other universities. (Personal communication.)

Then again, according to an interested faculty member at Durham University (U.K.), Confucius Institutes have no political agenda because they don’t even talk about such things as human rights. He says, “another point undermining the notion that there’s an ideological agenda at play is that the programme just doesn’t touch on some key issues. The Chinese are going to avoid contentious areas such as human rights and democracies and those kind of things” (The Diplomat: March 7, 2011).

* * *

In response to a critical press report, the Director of the Confucius Institute at Portland State University said her CI has sponsored lectures on Tibet, “ ‘with an emphasis on the beautiful scenery, customs and tourist interest.’ ” She said also that speakers have been invited to discuss such topics as China’s economic development, US-China relations, and China’s military, but she did not specify who they were or the content of their talks. “However…‘We try not to organize and host lectures on certain issues related to Falun Gong, dissidents and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.’ For one thing, she said, these are not topics the Confucius Institute headquarters would like to see organized by the institutes. ‘For another, they are not major interest and concerns now by general public at large here in the US.’ ” (Oregon Live, March 8, 2011).

* * *

An excellent ethnographic study by the anthropologist Jennifer Hubbert of Confucius Classrooms in a secondary school on the U.S. West Coast—actual location and name disguised for reasons of confidentiality—allows one to track certain modes of political censorship adopted by the Chinese teachers back to their Hanban origins. For Huppert notes that in their preparatory training by Hanban, the teachers were instructed to ignore or divert discussions of contentious political issues. (The same had been reported by the Chinese teacher who was the key figure in the McMaster case: She was told, “Don’t talk about that. If the student insists, you just try to change the topic or say something the Chinese Communist Party would prefer” [China Digital Times: June 22, 2012])) Accordingly, Professor Huppert observed that when “politically laden questions” emerged in classroom discussions, issues such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan, the teachers refocused on language matters or cultural activities. When assigned to write reports on Chinese provinces, the students who chose Tibet were told to focus on cultural practices. The interest of a number of students in the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square was likewise frustrated by teachers’ responses in anodyne cultural terms—characterized by one student as “look at the fuzzy bunnies.” (Apparently the students had had too many pandas for answers.) (Jennifer Hubbert, “Ambiguous States: Confucius Institutes and Chinese Soft Power in the American Classroom.” In press, Political and Legal Anthropology Review).

* * *

In 2011, a petition to eliminate Confucius Classrooms from the New South Wales public schools with some 10,000 signatures was presented by the Greens in the NSW Parliament. The Greens spokesman explained: “The NSW government has admitted that topics sensitive to the Chinese government, including Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong, and human rights violations would not be included in these classes….Teachers are recruited from China and paid by the Confucius Institute….They must meet certain criteria, including not having any involvement in Falun Gong. It is clear that the teachers have been politically vetted and will be deeply prejudiced toward Beijing’s orthodoxy” ( Oct, 14 2011).

* * *

The first CI in the U.S. at the University of Maryland was introduced and directed by a Physics professor with ties to the PRC, but without consulting the then director of the Chinese language program (who supplied this information) or the heads of the Department, School, or College in which Chinese language and culture is taught. “The whole thing was set up in secret” through a relationship between Hanban and the Physics professor, and then within the university exclusively between this professor and the University president. Initially, most of the CI was staffed by scientists with no cogent connection to Chinese language teaching. More than one attempt was later made to have the faculty of the established Chinese language program agree to accept the CI’s authority and direction for teaching Chinese, Hanban offering in return to supply the teachers, their salaries, together with the textbooks and course curricula. Writes the erstwhile head of the Chinese language program: “During my tenure at Maryland we were never willing to agree to such an obvious ploy for external manipulation.” (Personal communication).

* * *

The proposed establishment of a CI at Pennsylvania in 2009 involved a covert end run around the China faculty similar to the one at Maryland, based on an arrangement instead between Hanban and the Graduate School of Education. The Chinese studies faculty discovered this arrangement at the last moment, when it was about to be endorsed; whereupon their exposure of the proceedings ended them. The China scholars issued a statement explaining they did not want a program of inferior pedagogy competing with their own, one moreover that would “engage in various unwelcome soft power initiatives such as are going on everywhere there are CIs” (Lionel M. Jensen, “Culture Industry, Power, and the Spectacle of China’s ‘Confucius Institutes,’’’ in China in and beyond the Headlines, 3d edition, 2012. Timothy B. Watson and Lionel M. Jensen eds., pp. 287-88; Bloomberg News: November 1, 2011).

* * *

This is a small part of what I have collected so far. I would appreciate any contributions of a similar sort, especially from persons with first hand knowledge of Confucius Institutes’ practices. Anonymity will be respected when requested.

It seems there is an assumption that a CI at a hosting university is a Chinese institution. I would like to point out that the CI at the University of Adelaide is NOT a Chinese institution. It is a University of Adelaide institution whose three most important positions—the Director, Deputy Director and Executive Officer—are University of Adelaide employees paid by the University of Adelaide. The Director and the Deputy Director are tenured academics in their own right, working with the CI only part-time. The Management Committee of the CI consists of the Chair, occupied by the serving Pro-VC International, the serving Head of the School of Social Sciences, the Director, the Deputy Director, Executive Officer and the Chinese Co-Director. For the first three years this CI did not have a Chinese Co-Director, and now there is one who is an academic, with a doctorate, an associate professor from Shandong University, one of the three candidates who we agreed to accept after interviews.

The CI at the University of Adelaide was set up to fulfill a mission for the University of Adelaide, not for Hanban. But we do ask Hanban for financial and staff support.

Apart from Chinese language and cultural activities, the details of which would take up too much space, this CI runs a number of intellectual and academic forums every year, in programs such as the CI Annual Lecture, China Briefings Series, and Cultural Workshops. By running these forums I, the Director, intend to bring out ideas and arguments that the South Australian audience usually doesn’t hear about. In consultation with my colleagues I decide what topic to run and which speakers to invite. These decisions obviously reflect my understanding of China and of the world, as demonstrated in my publications Gao Village, The Battle for China’s Past, and numerous articles and papers. But I can state categorically that I have so far had no interference, not even a hint, from the Chinese side.

We have so far had three teachers sent by our partner, Shandong University. One is an associate professor of Chinese as a Second Language who taught Chinese in Russia, two are PhD candidates working on the topic of learning Chinese as a Second Language, and one of those two previously taught Chinese in South Korea. They don’t bring their textbooks from China and do not design their curricula. They are either tutors or associates of tenured Chinese department staff coordinating the Chinese language courses.

Do they propagate Chinese official government views on controversial topics? I don’t know. What I do know is that they become to know China better, Australia better, and know how better to teach Chinese as a second language to native speakers of English.

Every two years, Shandong University also sends Adelaide's CI two volunteer masters students in teaching Chinese as Second Language. The CI provides accommodation and health insurance for them. Again, after a couple of years at the CI, these students not only have better knowledge of teaching Chinese as a Second Language, but also have better competence in English. By the way, two of the girls actually married local Australians.

As a director of the CI here I am proud of the fact that not only has the CI contributed to the understanding of China and teaching of the Chinese language, but also of the fact that we have helped train some Chinese staff. This leads me to question another assumption taken for granted by some in this debate. The assumption is that everything is either yes or no, running like this:

  • If the Chinese are not with us they are against us
  • Either you support the Chinese government or you are against it
  • Either freedom or dictatatorship

The Chinese government is not one person. It has different interest groups and it is changing all the time. There is no such thing as the Chinese. There are different classes of Chinese who have different views of China and of the world. An academic or a scholar who really wants to make GOOD contribution to mankind should not work to fight for ideological or religious barriers but to break them down.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate about the value of the Confucius Institutes (CIs) in academic institutions, although a bit chagrined that much of the analysis is driven by those who have limited, or at the most, arms-length experience with the CI. I would agree with Professor Hanson’s argument that the AAUP’s statement seems to reflect little understanding of how a CI actually works. As the founder of the Confucius Institute at a major American university, and a member of the current advisory board, I am intimately familiar with the contract, personnel, and programming for one CI, and have also been engaged with China in a professional context since 1987. Currently, I am responsible for global partnerships at my institution, including both Taiwan and China, and to date, neither the Taiwanese nor the Chinese have demanded that I drop ties with the other.

There is undoubtedly tremendous value in a vigorous debate about the appropriate role and impact of a Confucius Institute in the context of U.S. higher education, and we welcome the growing academic literature exploring this issue. But I am concerned that charges are being leveled against CIs, their personnel, and the institutions that host them (remember they are not all hosted by universities), on the basis of the unconfirmed suspicions of the critics, with little evidence or even attempt to ascertain the reality. I agree wholeheartedly with the core interest of the AAUP and its recent statement on the Confucius Institutes, to protect academic integrity, but I am concerned that many of the accusations against the Institutes are based primarily on speculation, “thought experiments,” and irrational fears, that ultimately seek to de-legitimize any opposing perspective, whether of the Chinese government or of the faculty and staff who participate in the activities of the CI. I would like to contribute respectfully to this debate by going to the heart of the argument: does Hanban inappropriately limit, either by proscription or staffing, the discussion of sensitive political discussions? There is little doubt that China’s government wants the CI movement to enhance its “soft power,” but just because Beijing wants that to happen doesn’t make it true. Only in the most general sense could this possibly be true, in that as people learn Chinese, they are able to access more information about China itself, as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other Chinese language communities. Unthinking criticism of the CI as an “instrument of the Chinese state” reflects a shallow sense of causation; namely, that by offering Chinese language classes without concomitant and constant criticism of China’s government, U.S. universities have “bought into” China’s nefarious schemes for global dominance.

I see an oft-repeated rumor that “every CI contract” contains a non-disclosure agreement, which presumably means that nothing about the operations of the CI can be revealed. As a state institution, however, all documents signed by my own university officials are a matter of public record, and we have always responded to any request for a copy of this agreement, provided the request follows appropriate university procedures. Indeed several years ago, we responded to a national reporter looking for a smoking gun of Chinese governmental intrusion, provided all the relevant information (including the original contract), and nothing came of it. I presume the smoking gun wasn’t found, because there wasn’t one. Although I have not seen every contract (as indeed, neither have the critics), I can say, however, that at my own institution, the first agreement (signed in 2007) had no such agreement at all, and the second agreement signed upon renewal has a “confidentiality clause”, which is aimed primarily at protecting confidential information from either party (Hanban or the institution) for three years. This clause cannot be interpreted to mean that the operations of the institute are not open and transparent.

As regards to the supposed “self-censorship” that Professor Link has suggested, of course, I do not know a CI Director who would agree to any programming that makes “concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China,” and I do know quite a few directors. I would urge Professor Link and other critics to consider the case of Emory University, which is a partner in the Confucius Institute in Atlanta, and also frequently hosts the Dalai Lama, who holds the title of Presidential Distinguished Professor at that university. It is certainly hard to argue that Emory has made “concessions to the political aims” of China, and academic freedom at Emory has not been undermined by the presence of a CI. Likewise, academic research on China has been in no way hindered at any institution that hosts a CI. To presume, however, that the CI must sponsor or endorse that research, regardless of its political intent, is a violation of the very academic freedom for which the AAUP stands.

The Confucius Institute at my own university has hosted academic discussions on Taiwan, the Beijing Olympics, Chinese politics and foreign policy, Chinese demographic challenges, issues of economic growth and stagnation, and yes, believe it or not, the events of Tiananmen. We have invited any faculty member with research interests in China to give a talk, on any topic, with no pre-approval, as was the experience of Professor Wasserstrom. I would suggest to him that his experience was the norm, not an exception.

Finally, let me just ask that my colleagues, both critics and supporters of the CI, disengage from the accusatory, and frankly, slanderous language. There are numerous reasons why Professor Levine might not have received feedback from Confucius Institutes on the Tiananmen Initiative, and we ought to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, rather than immediately charging them with “cowardice” (Professor Levine’s term). Our CI didn’t respond because we didn’t have plans for Tiananmen when he wrote to us, and even if we had, we would have opted to zealously protect the local imperatives and goals of the Institute, and would have refused to allow any propaganda victory that might have been perceived by responding to his request. However, we marked the anniversary of Tiananmen in a way that was academically appropriate, and indeed, several members of our community shared their own experiences of 1989 in sometimes tearful terms.

Finally, I would suggest to the interlocutors that rather than relying on “thought experiments” (which I was trained to avoid in my social science training), we examine the actual activities of the CIs. Critics will argue that these few examples do not tell the whole story, and perhaps there are other institutes that do in fact prohibit such topics. But I would certainly encourage specific examples, rather than blanket assertions. All of this is public record, most of it on the CI websites. Until we know exactly which compromises have been made, let’s avoid the insults to our colleagues, who are doing their best to help U.S. students understand one of the most geopolitical important developments in recent years.

Clearly, our colleagues have strongly held divergent opinions on the topic. I have a suggestion that may be not only Pollyannish but also reflect my ignorance about all the relevant issues—I've not been part of the CI debate and my university does not have a CI:

The major point of contention in this debate seems to be the potential compromise of academic freedom that results from either poorly arranged CI agreements or from the weak bargaining position of universities who are tempted by the benefits of CI instruction (esp. those who cannot sustain Chinese programs on their own) and are reluctant to forgo them.

Wouldn't one solution to this problem be a "best practices" agreement among universities and colleges that focuses on the relevant CI issues? Many seem to suggest that Stanford's agreement is a good one but that Stanford got it because Stanford has the clout to bargain with the hanban and other relevant Chinese parties. Why not take Stanford rules as a starting point for drafting a common agreement/best practices guidelines for institutions considering CIs? Universities and colleges could then decide whether they wanted to become parties to the agreement.

If this were feasible, it would level the playing field and make it much more difficult for the Chinese side to rely on divide and conquer tactics. It is possible, of course, that such a document would be hard to draft not only because of Chinese attempts to scuttle it, but also because some universities and colleges might balk at being lumped together (we all understand the elitist impulse at some institutions). But I thought I'd toss the idea out there to find out if it has already been tried and been found wanting or, if it hasn't, why it might not be a good approach.