Close Confucius Institutes on US campuses, NAS says

Universities in the United States should close down their Confucius Institutes – teaching and research centres funded directly by the Chinese government – says a report by the National Association of Scholars or NAS.

The wide-ranging report includes additional insights on the institutes’ often-secretive operations gleaned from the contracts signed with a dozen US universities, obtained through freedom of information law requests.

Some 103 Confucius Institutes are in operation on US campuses, many offering for-credit courses in Chinese language and culture. A major plank of China’s soft power policies, Confucius Institutes on prestigious campuses such as the universities of Stanford and Columbia also boost China’s global image.

The institutes are mainly staffed and funded by an agency of China’s Ministry of Education – the Office of Chinese Languages Council International known as the Hanban – which pays the teachers' salaries and trips to China.

“The Hanban has shrouded Confucius Institutes in secrecy. At most institutes, the terms of agreement are hidden. China’s leaders have not assuaged worries that the institutes may teach political lessons that unduly favour China,” says the report released last week by the New York-based NAS.

The report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and soft power in American higher education, says unless contracts between US universities and the Hanban can be renegotiated to include more transparency, financial and hiring autonomy for US host universities, academic freedom guarantees and other safeguards, the institutes should be shut down.

The report takes a closer look at the institutes in the wake of a June 2014 report by the American Association of University Professors or AAUP, which urged US universities to cut ties with Confucius Institutes unless agreements could be reworked to guarantee academic freedom and full control by the host US universities over teachers, curricula and textbooks.

AAUP regarded the institutes as an arrangement that “sacrificed the integrity of the university”.

In 2013 the Canadian Association of University Teachers also called on universities and Colleges to shut down Confucius Institutes on Canadian campuses.

In a high-profile case in 2014, when its Confucius Institute contract with the Hanban came up for renewal, the University of Chicago closed its institute after 100 professors signed a petition noting the “dubious practice of allowing an external institution to staff academic courses within the university”. Pennsylvania State University announced the same year that it, too, would sever its relationship with the Hanban.

Freedom concerns

According to the NAS report, although practices vary from institute to institute, most institutes were controlled by the Hanban.

“Some reported an outright ban on discussing subjects that are censored in China; others reported freedom of speech. But overall we found that to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardise academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Sometimes these concessions are official and in writing; more often they operate as implicit policies,” the NAS report says.

The principal reason for recommending a shut-down, according to author of the report Rachelle Peterson, director of NAS research projects, is that “Confucius Institutes give a foreign government agency access to the university classroom and it permits a foreign agency to select teachers, textbooks and in a very real way helps determine the content of what is taught in a for-credit university class”.

She says: “Confucius Institutes operate like a class-in-a-box kit and it is inappropriate for a US institution of higher education to outsource its key function of teaching students to a foreign government.”

The NAS report says the Confucius Institutes avoid discussions on topics such as Chinese political history and human rights abuses.

“There are concerns that the Hanban really doesn’t like particular incidents in Chinese history, especially political history, or human rights abuses coming up in Confucius Institute classes and in our research we found that university professors, even professors with tenure in Chinese studies programmes, felt that pressure [on these issues] from within the Confucius Institute even though they themselves were not associated with the institute,” Peterson told University World News.

With China funding at least 50% of the operations of the Confucius Institutes, including teachers and textbooks, pressure on the wider university can also come from US host university administrations “which feel a real need to keep this line of funding open from China. Universities become dependent on keeping goodwill with the Hanban and that can lead to a kind of self-censorship as well,” Peterson says.

Secret agreements

According to the NAS report, Confucius Institutes’ relations with their American hosts “are governed by secret agreements enforced in Chinese courts under Chinese law”.

However, for the first time, the NAS was able to obtain some of the contracts under freedom of information laws in New York and New Jersey. The contracts obtained all closely followed a standard Hanban template that includes clauses that the institutes should not contravene Chinese laws.

“These contracts do not provide guidance on which law takes precedence, what to do when the US law contradicts Chinese laws, and how to handle that,” Peterson says.

Also revealed were clauses in the nine contracts obtained between universities in New York and New Jersey that say the US partner should not “tarnish the reputation” of the Confucius Institutes or Hanban.

But the clauses are vague, says Peterson. “What does it mean to tarnish the Confucius Institutes' project? Would having a group of professors on campus raising concerns about the Confucius Institutes be sufficient to count as ‘tarnishing the reputation’?”

While the Hanban appears to have no legal power to compel US staff at Confucius Institutes to follow Chinese law, it can impose penalties such as withholding all-expenses-paid trips to China, reject or delay applications for new projects, or deny or decrease funding. The effect, Peterson says, is that it pressures universities “to err on the side of caution”.

The report notes that Confucius Institutes are reluctant to criticise the Chinese government or discuss subjects censored in China such as the 1989 Tiananmen incident, and in some instances, have been responsible for the withdrawal of an invitation to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to speak on campus, as was the case in 2009 with North Carolina State University, where the Confucius Institute on its campus was said to have been behind the decision to withdraw.

Wider implications

The report notes wider implications for universities that go beyond the relationship with the Confucius Institutes themselves.

According to the report, “Confucius Institutes are central nodes in a complex system of relationships with China. Confucius Institutes attract full-tuition-paying Chinese students, fund scholarships for American students to study abroad, and offer other resources. Universities with financial incentives to please China find it more difficult to criticise Chinese policies.” Much of this could be jeopardised if the relationship with China sours.

“The Chinese government fully realises the vulnerability of American colleges and universities that lies in their financial dependence on tuition [fee income]. China can turn on the tap to full-tuition-paying Chinese students, turn it down, or shut it off. A college or university that becomes dependent on this flow of international students is loath to offend the Chinese government,” the report says.

China accounts for a third of international students in the US, with some 328,000 Chinese students studying in American universities in 2015.

“There could be fear among universities that losing the institute could lead to loss of some of the other relationships” with Chinese universities, Peterson says. “The clearest example is that Confucius Institutes are partnerships between foreign universities and a Chinese university and so American universities enjoy a kind of prominence at their partner universities in China and they would lose that, and potentially lose some of their study abroad students as well.”

The State University of New York at Buffalo has been able to dramatically expand their study abroad programme because of extra funding from the Hanban to pay for students to study in China, says Peterson. “The larger point is that Confucius Institutes have some leverage over universities beyond just the leverage of their own funding and their own teachers.”


“We do recommend that if universities do not close their Confucius Institute they should take some very specific steps to protect intellectual freedom and other freedoms,” Peterson says, adding the appropriate action was renegotiations when contracts come up for renewal. “But these changes are such that the Confucius Institutes would have to be totally rethought,” she says.

The University at Buffalo, or UB, which has a longstanding relationship with China, was able to renegotiate its agreement with the Hanban after the AAUP issued recommendations in 2014 to significantly increase universities’ controls over Confucius Institutes, including protecting universities’ oversight of the classroom and increased protection of intellectual freedoms.

The current contracts states that UB enjoys “full proprietorship” of the institute and that Buffalo professors oversee and direct all Confucius Institute teachers. The teachers, too, are contractually “subject to UB academic regulations, policies and procedures”.

Stephen Dunnett, vice-provost for international education at the University at Buffalo, where he is a member of the Confucius Institute board of directors, said the institute fully respects intellectual freedom and allows teachers and professors latitude to take the initiative in presenting a range of perspectives on China.

“The moment we see a violation of academic freedom, like anyone saying you can’t talk about something in the classroom”, the university would close the Confucius Institute, Dunnett told NAS.
Dunnett says UB funds 50% of the institute. “It has been implied that the US universities get tons of funds [from China], but that’s not the case. It’s implied that China can do what it wants. If it did, we wouldn’t have a Confucius Institute.”

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, director of the Confucius Institute at Pace University, said the university grants the institute broad freedom in selecting topics and teaching students: “We treat it as an American research unit. We have free discourse on controversial subjects.”

China’s official media has said critics of the Confucius Institutes do not understand how they work, and has said criticisms such as those raised by the AAUP in 2014 were unfounded.