It’s a benign sounding name which immediately conjures up visions of enlightenment and ancient Eastern wisdom. Indeed, that appears to be precisely the intent. Effective propaganda always drapes itself in cuddly messaging in order to distract from the nefarious agenda underneath. This is exactly what’s going on with Chinese government funded Confucius Institutes, which have sprung up at 500 universities worldwide, including 100 in the U.S.
Until yesterday, I had never heard of these entities, their direct connection to Chinese government propaganda, or the extent to which they’re multiplying. I’m sure 90% of you are in the same boat. The only reason I know anything about them now is thanks to an excellent article published in Politico titled, How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms.
First, let’s examine the direct links these institutes have to official Chinese efforts to propagandize overseas.
The Confucius Institutes’ goals are a little less wholesome and edifying than they sound—and this is by the Chinese government’s own account. A 2011 speech by a standing member of the Politburo in Beijing laid out the case: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun said. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Li, it now seems, was right to exult. More than a decade after they were created, Confucius Institutes have sprouted up at more than 500 college campuses worldwide, with more than 100 of them in the United States—including at The George Washington University, the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa. Overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education known colloquially as Hanban, the institutes are part of a broader propaganda initiative that the Chinese government is pumping an estimated $10 billion into annually, and they have only been bolstered by growing interest in China among American college students.
“Coordinate the efforts of overseas and domestic propaganda, [and] further create a favorable international environment for us,” Chinese minister of propaganda Liu Yunshan exhorted his compatriots in a 2010 People’s Daily article. “With regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issuers such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong. … We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”
Beijing treats this project seriously, as evidenced by who runs the show. Hanban (shorthand for the ruling body of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, a branch of the Ministry of Education) is classified technically as a nonprofit agency, but it is dominated by Communist Chinese officialdom. Representatives from 12 top state agencies—including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Press and Publishing Administration, a propaganda bureau—sit on its executive council. Hanban’s director general is on the Chinese state council, the 35-member board that basically runs the country.
Why are colleges embracing this ,you ask? As is typically the case with such things, it’s all about the money. Universities that don’t want, or lack the resources to, spend the time or money on Chinese studies departments figure they’ll accept one for free even if its primary function is to disseminate foreign government propaganda.
As Politico notes:
Hanban has been shrewd in compelling universities to host Confucius Institutes. Marshall Sahlins, a retired University of Chicago anthropologist and author of the 2014 pamphlet Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, reports that each Confucius Institute comes with “$100,000 … in start up costs provided by Hanban, with annual payments of the like over a five-year period, and instruction subsidized as well, including the air fares and salaries of the teachers provided from China. … Hanban also agrees to send textbooks, videos, and other classroom materials for these courses—materials that are often welcome in institutions without an important China studies program of their own.” And each Confucius Institute typically partners with a Chinese university.
They’re kind of like restaurant franchises: Open the kit, and you’re in business. American universities can continue to collect full tuition from their students while essentially outsourcing instruction in Chinese. In other words, it’s free money for the schools. At many (though not all) Confucius-hosting campuses, students can receive course credit for classes completed at the institute.
Disturbingly, there appears to be absolutely zero academic freedom within these Confucius Institutes, which you’d think goes against the entire idea of a university.
The Chinese teachers are thoroughly vetted by Hanban, according to Sahlins’ report. They “must have a strong sense of mission, glory, and responsibility and be conscientious and meticulous in [their] work,” Hanban says. They’re also explicitly instructed to toe Beijing’s line on controversial political questions. There can be no discussion whatsoever of human rights in China, or the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sahlins found that should a student raise an uncomfortable question about, say, the political status of Tibet, Hanban’s instructors are ordered to refocus the discussion on, say, Tibet’s natural beauty or indigenous cultural practices (which, ironically, Beijing has spent decades stamping out).
Matteo Mecacci of the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet requested a sampling of the Institute’s course materials from a D.C. area university several years ago. “Instead of scholarly materials published by credible American authors, not to speak of Tibetan writers, what we received were books and DVDs giving the Chinese narrative on Tibet published by China Intercontinental Press,” he wrote in Foreign Policy, “which is described by a Chinese government-run website as operating ‘under the authority of the State Council Information Office … whose main function is to produce propaganda products.’”
One student I spoke to—a junior at the University of Kentucky, which is home to a Confucius Institute—recalls attending a Confucius event at which another student, who was considering studying abroad in China, asked about the air pollution there. The response from the Confucius faculty was that the reports of pollution were “misinformation promoted in the U.S. media.” The student says Confucius faculty also “glorified and glossed over” negative aspects of Chinese culture and politics. Another student, a Kentucky senior who has taken classes at the same Confucius Institute, agrees that the institute “promotes an overly rosy picture of Chinese culture,” though, the student adds, “I don’t think it’s a problem for students to take advantage of [Confucius Institute] resources as long as they view the institute with a critical eye and round out their perspective on China with other experiences and points of view.”
Even worse, many of these universities seems to know full well that the whole thing’s shady as hell, so administrators simply refuse to talk.
Many of those universities who maintain Confucius Institutes appear to go to great lengths to shield them from criticism. Last year, Rachelle Peterson released a thorough report about Confucius Institutes for the National Association of Scholars, a right-leaning academic organization where Peterson is a scholar. At the heart of her report were 12 case studies of Confucius Institutes at New York and New Jersey universities. Over the course of her reporting, Peterson says, “There were a lot of unanswered emails, a lot of unanswered phone calls” (an experience shared by this journalist). When she did manage to set up interviews with Confucius Institute staff, they were often canceled at the last minute, like those at the University of Albany and the University of Binghamton. Another time, when she managed to secure an interview with a Confucius Institute staff member, he insisted that the meeting “happen in a basement … not in his office.” He seemed afraid of being caught, she says.
Totally normal. Meanwhile…
The most disturbing event transpired at Alfred University in upstate New York. There, Peterson, says, she had “called the Confucius Institute, spoken to a teacher … and received permission to sit in on [a class].” As she observed the Chinese-language class, she recalls, the provost of the university charged into the classroom, interrupting the lesson. He ordered her removal from the classroom and told her she had to leave the campus immediately. The provost and a Confucius staffer swiftly escorted her off campus. (Alfred University did not respond to a request for comment asking to confirm or deny Peterson’s account.)
Fortunately, there has been some limited pushback, but we should encourage a lot more.
One institution that bucked the trend was the University of Chicago. The school opened a Confucius Institute in 2010, which quickly proved controversial. To Bruce Lincoln, a now-retired religion professor at Chicago who then served on the faculty senate, the Confucius Institute represented the “subcontracting [of the] educational mission” in the United States—a “hostile takeover of U.S. higher education by a foreign power,” as he told me. (Prior to his battle against the Confucius Institute, Lincoln was involved in another fight at the University of Chicago, against the establishment of a Milton Friedman Institute, which would have been largely funded by conservative donors. That too represented a subcontracting of the education mission, he believes—in this case, the “corporatization of universities.”)
Incredibly, it gets even worse. These propaganda outfits are also trying to get into the minds of American children at as young an age as possible. Within the U.S. public school system they are known as Confucius Classrooms.
Liu’s orders have been heeded. The first Confucius Institute opened in South Korea in 2004. They quickly spread to Japan, Australia, Canada and Europe. The United States, China’s biggest geopolitical rival, has been a particular focus: Fully 40 percent of Confucius Institutes are stateside. In addition to the Institutes at universities, Hanban also operates hundreds of so-called Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary schools. The public school system of Chicago, for example, has outsourced its Chinese program to Confucius Classrooms.
Confucius Classrooms, for younger students, are also ascendant these days: In October, local media reported that three new ones would be planted in Texas public schools, and UMass Boston is helping develop them at schools in Massachusetts, including the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where a Confucius Classroom just launched. At scores of universities, meanwhile, the institutes are expanding both physically and programmatically. New courses and scholarships at existing ones are announced all the time. And they’re growing rapidly overseas, particularly these days in Africa, where China has been aggressively expanding its footprint in recent years.
I highlighted this article for a couple of reasons. First, its a very disturbing trend that’s increasingly being embraced across the U.S. educational system. Second, its another piece of evidence proving our culture is in the midst of a ethical and intellectual downward spiral at a systemic level. The necessary response is to utterly reject such a system and create and embrace new ways of doing things wherever and whenever possible.
I wrote about the decline of traditional education in a three part series last year. Links are below.
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