Embrace China's Confucius institutes

The last few days have seen a vibrant debate surrounding the threat posed to academic freedom by Confucius institutes in North American universities. This has been sparked by a statement from the American Association of University Professors, which determined that “allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities”.

Perhaps (definitely) the best discussion of this issue has snowballed on the China File site. It opened with a very reasoned defence of the establishment of Confucius institutes by Robert Kapp.

Arguing quite eloquently, Kapp posits that the establishment of Confucius institutes in the United States higher education sector affords opportunities to US students who would otherwise not, in many cases, be exposed to the language, history and culture of this most fascinating country.

Kapp’s position is one I agree with more or less entirely, and especially with the crucial caveat inserted by Kapp:

“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.”

High-level debate

Subsequent contributions to the debate come from some of the most highly regarded China scholars and China watchers around.

Jeff Wasserstrom at the University of California, Irvine, provides some anecdotal evidence from his personal experience of giving a lecture at a Confucius institute, which seems to challenge his healthy scepticism about such partnerships.

Jerome Cohen of New York University seems to agree with the unabashed criticism of Confucius institutes by Perry Link of the University of California, San Diego, before briefly recounting an award he received from a Confucius institute “to recognise the importance of civil and political rights for China”.

Voices in support of Confucius institutes are in the minority, with only Robert Kapp and David Schlesinger largely in support.

Firmly in the skeptics camp are Isabel Hilton, Jonathan Mirsky, Steven I Levine (Montana), Matteo Mecacci, David Wertime, Winston Lord and – despite somewhat confusing supporting statements on personal experiences of Confucius institutes – Jeff Wasserstrom and Jerome Cohen.

Perry Link’s rebuttal and counter of Robert Kapp’s argument is certainly persuasive and is cited by both Winston Lord (enthusiastically) and Jerome Cohen (reluctantly) as pretty much infallible.

Isabel Hilton draws attention to national language and culture institutes such as the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise and the British Council, commending their independence from academia and their maintenance of some form of neutrality while fulfilling their soft power roles.

Yet there remains, at the heart of this discussion, a seemingly uncritical assumption that universities are, and should be, politically neutral institutions, all the while advocating disengagement from China on the basis of a political principle.

The university as a civil society institution

It is one of the ‘facts’ of the Western world that universities exist on the basis of two core principles: freedom of enquiry and institutional autonomy.

Yet this view conveniently ignores the context out of which universities initially emerged and serves to reinforce the erroneous assumption that universities have always been created upon these two fundamental values.

European universities were established largely through monarchical charters and often at the behest of the papacy. This is true of most of the world’s oldest institutions, including Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Padua, Uppsala, Salamanca etc.

They were created either by the Holy Roman Empire, the papal states or monarchs of states in which they existed, with their political allegiances placing a question mark over any claims to autonomy; Oxford, for example, remained vehemently Royalist during the English Civil War.

US universities, which emerged from this tradition, can be questioned in terms of their inter-relationship with the state.

Following the Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik, United States higher education went through a process not dissimilar to that which Chinese higher education is now undergoing in terms of the injection of resources into science and technology research.

National Science Foundation congressional funding, for example, jumped by a factor of 15 in the decade from 1959 to 1968 – from around US$35 million to US$500 million – with grants approved for research deemed to be of priority by the US government.

Caltech – the California Institute of Technology – for example, grew dramatically in the post-war and Cold War era; is famous as the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and is one of America’s many universities which have Reserve Officers' Training Corps to educate commissioned officers in the US military. It is, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT, one of the world’s pre-eminent institutions for the furthering of scientific knowledge, yet its evolution is rooted in a close relationship with the state.

The point I am making here is that universities can never be separated from the political entities in which they exist.

University autonomy and academic freedom are noble values to which all universities should aspire, but there is not a single institution in the world which can lay claim to being entirely autonomous or having total academic freedom.

This condition of the academy arises from the simple fact that universities derive their defining characteristics from the contexts out of which they emerge and solely at the discretion of the political entities which choose to bestow such liberties upon them and which guarantee those freedoms to a greater or lesser extent.

It seems to me that we all too often uncritically accept the belief that our universities – and I include European, United Kingdom, United States and other advanced nations in this – can be or are autonomous from the state.

On the contrary, they are not independent from the state, but are a civil society institution where consensus on the prevailing normative world view is negotiated.

Chinese higher education and state relations

In China, all universities are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education or the provincial or municipal education bureau.

There are approximately 115 national-level universities that report directly to the ministry in Beijing, while the remaining 2,190 higher education institutions are under the jurisdiction of the provincial or municipal education bureaus.

Of the total 2,305 higher education institutions, 1,090 are involved in four-year degree provision, with a smaller proportion approved for masters and doctoral degrees, while the remaining 1,215 provide three-year vocational diploma education. None of these universities confer their own degrees as all degrees in China are conferred by the Ministry of Education.

Institutions receive their funding directly from the Ministry of Education or education bureau for teaching, with the leading universities competing for research funds from different government departments including the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education and other national ministries and provincial governments.

All Chinese universities work to deliver research that contributes to national, provincial and local development goals as laid out in the five-year plans at various different levels of government.

China has a much greater recognition of the social function of the university and chooses not to cover up this fact, but rather to emphasise the central importance of higher education to national social, economic, cultural and political development.

Personally, I find this not to be insidious, but to be quite acutely and refreshingly realistic about the social function of the university and its relationship with the state.

It might not reflect my thinking on how a higher education sector should be, but as an academic I'm interested in understanding China's higher education sector on its own terms, with the hope of being better able to understand how it will continue to transform.

To criticise China's higher education system for not adhering to the same principles of autonomy and (arguably) academic freedom would serve only to identify me as viewing China as a problem to be solved and that, I strongly argue, is an uncritical perspective which tells people more about my normative convictions than it does about the Chinese higher education system.

When conducting my doctoral research, I interviewed many Chinese university presidents, party secretaries and senior officials and academics – both formally and informally – which revealed the scale of this industrial policy approach to the higher education sector.

One particular quote stood out in my mind and serves to highlight the difference in attitudes towards higher education:

“…our logic is not the same as their [Western] logic…Western logic holds that the university wants to be the smartest group of people in the world, right. If I have my opinion, if I think we should educate students in certain subjects, this is completely the right of the university [to decide]. The university’s right is paramount. But Chinese universities…they have never been like this; [it’s about] what contribution can I make”.

At first, such a statement appears to serve to highlight the differences between Chinese and ‘Western’ higher education. But I believe it is more useful to jettison the assumption prevalent in the West that universities can be autonomous. (I emphasise here that I think we should strive for that, but that it is not achievable).

It is here where I believe that Gramsci’s notion of the integral state, as a sum of political society and civil society, is extremely useful in framing the relationship between the state and higher education, regardless of national context.

The university as a part of the integral state

Gramsci defines political society in a manner similar to Althusser’s coercive state apparatus: the executive, judiciary, legislature, military, paramilitary, police force, civil service etc.

Yet Gramsci’s view on civil society rejects widely held notions of a sphere of activity, which exists independently of the state, to conceive of civil society as the terrain upon which the negotiation of consensus to a political elite’s world vision is negotiated.

Civil society institutions, after all, exist to represent the interests of their members to political society; civil society institutions such as trade unions, chambers of commerce, guilds, NGOs, pressure groups are inextricably linked to political society otherwise they would serve no purpose.

In this sense: universities are institutions for socialisation; play a significant role in the reproduction and transformation of social structures over time; are institutions which see academics often crossing or straddling the line between political and civil society to take up government posts and appointments; are intricately interwoven into the socio-political fabric of the nation state; and reflect (not determine) the widely-held values of the political entity in which they exist.

Confucius institutes as soft power

Confucius institutes form part of the outward projection of Chinese soft power, forming one half of a two-pronged soft-power strategy known as ‘invite in, go global’. They are administered through Hanban, an institution charged with the provision of Chinese language training and proficiency assessments which is affiliated to the Ministry of Education.

Confucius institutes themselves are not merely agreements between foreign universities and the Hanban. Each institute is led by a Chinese partner university. Staff selected for the Confucius institutes must come from the Chinese partner university and must be approved by Hanban for the appointment.

This is a central part of Confucius institute staffing arrangements, whereby the institute language staff are selected and assigned, but the institutional agreements involve the foreign university, the Chinese university and Hanban.

To engage or withdraw – The million dollar question

I find it confusing why this debate is being limited to engagement with Confucius institutes, though I suspect that wider discussion involving teaching and research collaborations with Chinese universities, or the huge increases in Chinese students at US universities in recent years, may make it inconvenient to extend the logic of the anti-institute discourse to institutional and departmental partnerships and exchange programmes.

Surely the underlying principle on which this scepticism of Confucius institutes is based would also lead to calls for US institutions to sever ties with Chinese universities, which are arguably even more closely supervised by the state than Confucius institutes.

US universities have, over the past decades, been pioneers of engagement with Chinese universities and the proposition that US universities should consider severing ties with Confucius institutes places that commendable effort under a dark cloud.

Johns Hopkins University has a long established operation in Nanjing, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, while the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies relocated its inter-university programme from Taiwan to China in 1997 where it exists to this day providing world-class language training from its base on Tsinghua University’s campus.

Tsinghua itself was established by US missionaries after indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion was deemed excessive and Theodore Roosevelt secured congressional approval for scholarships to study in the US.

More recently, New York University opened its second portal campus, NYU Shanghai, in partnership with East China Normal University. Duke University continues to plan for the opening of Duke Kunshan University in partnership with Wuhan University in the city of Kunshan near Shanghai and Suzhou.

Kean University recently received final approval to enrol students at Wenzhou Kean University in southern Zhejiang. Michigan University has a long established partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University at their joint institute in Shanghai.

In addition, the US government has launched an initiative called the 100k Strong Programme which aims to have 100,000 US students taking some part of their undergraduate studies in China by 2015, which dovetails well with China’s plans to have 500,000 foreign students studying in China by 2020, 150,000 of whom will be enrolled on degree-seeking programmes at Chinese universities.

In terms of academic exchange, the great tradition of study abroad that forms a major characteristic of elite US higher education is also developing rapidly in and across China.

The University of California Education Abroad Program has initiatives at several national-level universities – including Peking University, Beijing Normal University and Fudan University – sending over 100 students per semester, and more for short-term summer programmes each year.

Recent figures suggest that total Sino-foreign collaborative education programmes approved by the Ministry of Education number over 1,500, with many of these involving US institutions.

The number of research tie-ups between China’s leading universities and universities in the US is growing all the time, with institutional and departmental collaboration across the full range of academic disciplines.

This is a phenomenon that is now moving in the opposite direction to see Chinese universities establishing overseas campuses in Malaysia and collaborative research and teaching centres in foreign countries.

Again, at the University of California, a major centre was established on-campus at San Diego. The Fudan-UC Center aims to connect all institutions in the University of California system with Fudan University.

The centre director is Professor Richard Marsden of UC San Diego who is joined by the chair of the executive board, Fudan Vice-President Lin Shangli, and academic board co-chairs Professor Peng Xizhe for Fudan and Professor Susan Shirk for San Diego.

In attendance at a symposium held at the Fudan-UC Center in December 2012 following the 18th Party Congress and sitting on the discussion panel were two contributors to the China File debate, Professor Jeff Wasserstrom and Professor Perry Link.

I would be interested to know how concerns about self-censorship with regards to Fudan-UC compare with the clear scepticism of Confucius institutes expressed by Link and Wasserstrom and what, if any, distinction could be made. Having said that, I think the Fudan-UC Center is a great venture for reasons explained towards the end of this piece.

Self-censorship and indoctrinating the automatons

Concerns about self-censorship expressed most clearly by Perry Link are obviously a major issue. But we must surely concede that self-censorship happens for a variety of reasons, with fear of Chinese Communist Party retaliation unlikely to be a factor on a US campus.

It is more likely that concerns about embarrassing the US university senior management will lead US scholars to self-censor. On a US campus, in a country that does guarantee freedom of expression and academic freedom, the only condition required for such concerns to become reality is for US scholars to fail to uphold their own principles.

Robert Kapp is right in his assertion that the responsibility rests with the home institution and, by extension, the scholars at that institution.

One of the most obvious issues I have to take with the argument against Confucius institutes on US campuses – or indeed, any other campuses – is the implicit argument that the Chinese government both desires and is capable of indoctrinating US students with a pro-party political opinion on US campuses through short-term language courses.

I would have hoped that attitudes towards US students from some of their leading China scholars would not be so quick to assume that the thought patterns of America’s youth would be so easily altered. As Raymond Williams once commented:

“If ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and political and cultural ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, of a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then society would be very much easier to move and change than in practice it has ever been or is.”

Even more so, any paranoia about the capability of Confucius institutes to indoctrinate young Americans enrolled on language courses would logically also lead to calls for any and all US undergraduates to avoid studying at China’s universities and not come to China at all.

Yang Dali of the University of Chicago is quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying: “We have free speech on campus, and to say these teachers are trying to indoctrinate the 19-year-old, 20-year-old students at the University of Chicago – I personally have found it to be ridiculous.”

I would extend that further to argue that any experience of a foreign culture is perhaps the most important experience a young person should have. It compels you to reflect on your own beliefs; to develop compassion for other people and cultures different from your own, and is a powerful catalyst for the development of critical thinking abilities.

Furthermore, universities and the US government support US students to study in China at study abroad centres and at Chinese universities, yet US scholars are increasingly concerned at joint-institutions in their own backyard.

The China File commentators have lived, studied, worked in China, many of them at points in time where China was not as open as it is today. Several continue to travel regularly to China to lecture, give talks and to provide commentary and analysis on China’s continued transformation.

Were they subject to clumsy attempts at indoctrination when they lived in China (if so, it didn’t appear to work)? Or did this experience affect them in different ways, perhaps opening their mind, encouraging them to reflect critically on their own culture, on their own normative assumptions about how the world is, how it should be?

My own experience in China and through Chinese society and culture has brought me to question a great many of the underlying assumptions I possessed prior to living here.

It has been the greatest experience of my life, has helped me forge a career studying and teaching about a country I find endlessly fascinating; has brought me into contact with some of the warmest and most optimistic people I have ever met – including party members and officials, I should add – and has enriched my life to the greatest possible extent.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t become a Chinese Communist Party ideologue, though I believe that the successes of the party and the People’s Republic of China government over the past 35 years have undoubtedly and dramatically improved the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in China.

There are regrettable and sometimes quite painful stories that emerge on an almost daily basis, as there are emanating from the US, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. But China is moving in the right direction and continued engagement with this nation is absolutely necessary to ensure a better understanding and a brighter future.

Such engagement will undoubtedly lead to both harmony and discord over certain issues, but to withdraw from engagement through higher education would be a cataclysmic strike on Sino-US relations and would simply serve to demonstrate that US universities are as guided by ideology as those they seek to criticise; that US academics are prepared to curtail their own students’ opportunities on the basis of a political opinion; and that the US will not do business with anyone who doesn’t conform to its view of how the world should be – which is not necessarily how it chooses to behave itself.

We must continue to resist temptations to use commitment principles as a reason to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to further mutual understanding and respect, while acknowledging that progress cannot be achieved by self-imposed isolation or by refusal to engage.

If China is willing to send half a million of its brightest minds to overseas universities every single year, then we should not be concerned about institutes which allow our own students to experience China’s vibrant and rich culture. We should embrace them.

* Mike Gow is global postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai. He can be contacted on This article was first published on his blog.