Universities’ ties with China under investigation

Until now, the impact of China on American universities has largely been a subject of discussion for college campuses, not the halls of Congress. No longer. A US House of Representatives sub-committee began a hearing last Thursday on whether American colleges’ Chinese connections could compromise academic freedom in this country. Scholars from the US and China gave testimonies.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

"The Chinese educational market is a lucrative one, but we have to ask if there are any hidden costs for American schools and colleges seeking access to that market," said Chris Smith, a House representative and New Jersey Republican who chairs the Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Africa, global health, global human rights, and international organisations.

"By rushing to build campuses in China and signing agreements to have Chinese-government entities on American campuses, are universities and schools accepting restrictions on foundational principles of American higher education?" Smith said.

Restrictions on American scholars in China

One speaker at the hearing was Perry Link, a professor of comparative literature and foreign languages at the University of California at Riverside, who has been barred from China for nearly two decades.

Link was blacklisted by the Chinese government probably because of his writing on the Tiananmen Square protests and human rights in China, and has spoken out about the corrosive effect of Chinese pressure on foreign academics and institutions.

Too often, he says, China scholars self-censor, avoiding politically sensitive topics, for fear they will also run foul of authorities and lose access to libraries, archives and other research sites in China.

Controversy over Confucius institutes

There are now more than 80 of these Chinese-sponsored language and culture centres on American campuses, part of an effort to expand China’s diplomatic and cultural reach.

But faculty members at several colleges have pushed back against the institutes, saying colleges and universities with such programmes risk becoming dependent on Chinese funds and susceptible to pressure from Beijing to stifle speech it opposes, such as support for Tibetan independence.

Although there has been little evidence of direct meddling by the Chinese government, the American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have urged colleges to either scrap the partnerships or renegotiate them to promote transparency and protect academic freedom.

This autumn, two institutions, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago, announced they were closing their Confucius institutes.

Scrutiny of overseas ties

More and more American colleges are establishing programmes or even satellite campuses in China, raising questions about whether they can work in authoritarian countries without compromising their academic integrity.

Representative Smith’s interest in the topic stems from his support of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who was asked to leave New York University last summer after a year as a visiting fellow. While NYU maintained that the appointment was always meant to be temporary, Chen himself suggested that the university, which was about to open a campus in Shanghai, was bowing to pressure from Chinese authorities.

More recently, faculty discontent at Wellesley College’s international engagement was stirred after Peking University, with which Wellesley had a nascent partnership, fired a politically outspoken professor, Xia Yeliang.

Both Xia, now a scholar at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, and the leader of Wellesley’s protests, Thomas Cushman, a sociology professor, were to testify at Thursday’s hearing. The two men have called for a broader national debate about American colleges’ overseas ties in places such as China.

* Geoff Maslen reports that an estimated 500 Confucius institutes now operate in universities in more than 25 countries under China’s ‘soft power’ policy and they are now dotted across Asia, Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australasia. Another 500 ‘Confucius Classrooms’ are operating in schools across more than 100 countries.

* According to a listing by Wikipedia, Britain’s universities host 25 institutes, Russia 18, Korea 19 and Japan 14 but the US tops the list with nearly 100. The programme began in 2004 and is overseen by Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which aims to have 1,000 institutes operating by 2020.