The first Confucius Institute (CI) opened in Seoul, South Korea in 2004, and the first CI in the US opened at the University of Maryland later that same year. The program pairs foreign universities with Chinese universities to offer Chinese language and culture courses at foreign universities. In the US, many domestic faculty and scholars have supported the programs because it allows universities to expand their offerings of courses on Chinese language and culture. Partnership with Chinese universities for a CI allows American institutions to avoid a “low-equilibrium trap” situation in which language programs don’t have the resources to expand course offerings. CIs allow students to learn from experienced faculty from the partner Chinese university and gain exposure to more current ideas and teaching methods. However, transparencies must be made about the nature of these CIs in order to better understand the controversy surrounding their operations.

Li Changchun (center) and Liu Yandong (right) at the Confucius Institute Headquarters

The CI program is a global soft power program that is overseen by Hanban, a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education and part of the Chinese government, that began in 2004. In November 2011, then-Politburo Standing Committee member (retired as of 2013) Li Changchun said that the “Confucius Institute has not only been a significant move in the field of education… but is also an important achievement in culture going global and pays an important role in the improvement of cultural soft power,” during an inspection of the Confucius Institute Headquarters with then-State Councilor (Vice Premier since March 2013) Liu Yandong.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (center)

Due to concerns over CIs connections with the Chinese government, some individual institutes have been the center of controversy in the US. In 2009, North Carolina State University canceled an event to which His Holiness the Dalai Lama had been extended an invitation. Allegedly, the CI at the university raised its objections with the university, though how much impact this would have had on the final decision of the university is unknown. In 2011, an instructor at McMaster University in Canada quit her position due to the conflict between her job and her practice of Falun Gong. Following the incident, the university closed its CI in 2013 because the hiring practices of the CI did not reflect the university’s practices. While the incident took place in Canada, the US has hiring practices similar to Canada.

There has also been documentation of self-censorship within the CI at the University of Chicago, in which an administrator acknowledged his unwillingness to put up a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 2014, the university decided not to renew the contract for its CI as a result of the reported self-censorship and a faculty petition. While these incidents have been isolated in the past, concerns regarding the broader program have surfaced in the US government recently.

Feb 13, 2018. Senate Hearing on World Intelligence Issues. FBI Director Wray responding to Sen. Marco Rubio.

On February 13, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s public hearing on World Intelligence Issues took place. During the hearing, the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel R. Coats, said that, “[China] is looking beyond their own region… it’s clear that they have a long-term strategic objective to become a world power.” Through Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and FBI Director Michael Wray’s exchange concerning Chinese soft power in the US academia, it’s apparent that the US is beginning to push back against alleged Chinese influences meddling in America. In response to a question from Sen. Rubio, Wray said, “the use of non-traditional collectors in the academic setting…can be seen in almost every [FBI] field office.” This observation shows that Chinese influence is not limited to major cities or specific disciplines and instead is spreading throughout the entirety of American society. In order to respond to Chinese influence, Wray advocates to “view the China threat…as a whole-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-society response by [the US].”

In regard to Chinese influence in American universities, both Sen. Rubio and Director Wray share specific concerns about CIs at universities, because the program is funded and managed in part by the Chinese government. Earlier in February, Sen. Rubio sent a letter to multiple Florida universities, sharing his “mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use ‘Confucius Institutes’ and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies.” He urges the universities to terminate their contracts with their CIs in order to prevent the “self-censorship that often takes place in academic settings where there is a Chinese government presence in the form of a Confucius Institute.”

According to the National Association of Scholars’ report on Confucius Institutes in April of 2017, more than 100 CIs remain in operation in the US and there are more than 500 active CIs worldwide. The Hanban also operates Confucius Classrooms (CCs) in K-12 schools. These programs are aimed at providing resources and classes to spread knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, much like how the British Council promotes English language and culture, the Goethe Institut promotes German language and culture, and L’Alliance Francaise promotes French language and culture. Unlike other language and culture programs, CIs can be found on college campuses, while other similar institutions establish independent extracurricular programs outside of the campus community.

Confucius Institute Day at the University of Maryland. (Photograph: Xinhua News Agency)

While the soft power influence of the CIs may not be ideal for American society, it’s not subversive either. The opening of CIs can have many benefits for universities, because the Hanban provides the funding, materials, and staffing for the CIs, providing essentially free Chinese language and cultural education services to these universities. This program offers an opportunity for universities to broaden their services to students in a period of tightening budgets for education, especially for smaller schools that have never had the resources to found such a program before.

The controversy of CIs arises in regard to the more hidden agenda of the program. Since the program is run by Hanban, CIs teach a Beijing-approved version of Chinese culture and history. As a result, “topics, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan, the fourth of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, and universal human rights, are off-limits at these institutes,” as Sen. Rubio points out in his letter. He also argues that there is “self-censorship that often takes place in academic settings where there is a Chinese government presence in the form of a Confucius Institute,” since the universities that the institutes sign a contract with feel pressured to be in line with the CI.

Supporting these criticisms, accusations have been made that CIs discriminate against dissidents and restricts the academic freedom of universities by intentionally omitting and objecting to certain information. The concerns of these critics is that CIs and the CCs give China a strong say in how China is presented to the American youth. This raises the alarm for some Americans that, in the long term, American perception of China will be shaped by the Chinese government.

It is the active censorship practiced by the CIs and the self-imposed censorship of CI-operating campuses that have triggered growing push back by American politicians, intelligence agencies, and some scholars. The inability of the US to establish similar centers in China has also caused many Americans to say that if there is no reciprocity in bilateral cultural exchanges, then the US should deny access to Chinese academic operations in American colleges and universities. It adds fuel to the growing anti-China sentiment in the US.

2017 Confucius Institute Day performance at USF

After the release of Sen. Rubio’s letter, some of its recipients have issued public responses. Of the universities to whom Sen. Rubio said he had sent the letter, both the University of West Florida (UWF) and the University of South Florida (USF) have released responses. The UWF has cited a lack of interest by students as the university’s rationale for not renewing its contract for its CI. George Ellenberg, senior vice president and provost at UWF said, “we determined that we weren’t really getting adequate return in terms of student interest and decided to discontinue [the program],” after conducting an analysis of the school’s relationship with the institute last year.

The USF System President, Judy Genshaft, has committed to a review of the school’s relationship with its CI. In her letter of response, Genshaft stated, “We have no evidence that our Confucius Institute has been compromised, but if it became apparent through the review process that the Chinese Government has in fact undermined our academic integrity we would be compelled to act immediately.” The other universities to which Sen. Rubio has said he sent his letter have yet to confirm receipt of his letter or present a public response.

At this time, there is no sign indicating that the US government will ban CIs in the US. CIs have been operating in the US for almost 15 years and its growing number shows this is something American colleges and universities welcome. However, the operation of CIs will certainly be subject to closer scrutiny and more pressure to uphold a higher standard of academic freedom. If Hanban continues to be oblivious to this pressure and operates with a hidden political agenda, CIs days may be numbered.