Pact may give Confucius Institutes new life in US

Shorter contract length and tougher terms may help remaining partnerships survive

October 22, 2019
 A visitor looks at the statues of Chinese sages, the 72 Disciples of Confucius, in the courtyard at the Koshi-byo, or Confucius Shrine, which also houses the Historical Museum of China, in Nagasaki, Japan
Source: Getty
A visitor looks at the statues of Chinese sages, the 72 Disciples of Confucius, in the courtyard at the Koshi-byo, or Confucius Shrine, which also houses the Historical Museum of China, in Nagasaki, Japan

China has accepted tougher academic limits over its Confucius Institutes, crafting a new model that some analysts believe could help stem a string of cancellations by US universities.

In a two-year contract renewal with Tufts University, the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes accepted repeated references to the host university’s supervision over the institutes’ non-credit courses in Chinese language and culture.

Tufts, like many other US universities using the institutes’ Chinese-supplied instructors to teach their students, said it knew of no actual instances of Chinese governmental political influence, censorship or suppression of ideas in its classes.

“However,” said a university spokesman, “we took very seriously the concerns expressed in some critiques offered by organisations and individuals outside Tufts” that such problems could arise.

The number of US universities working with the Confucius Institutes has dropped to about 90, from about 110 a few years ago, as tensions and suspicions between Washington and Beijing have grown.

The Tufts agreement – publicly posted to the university’s website – could help other US universities lacking the resources needed to negotiate and craft similar terms, said one expert, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

US governmental and political scepticism toward the Confucius Institutes might have been somewhat mitigated, Ms Glaser said, if US universities had insisted on such an approach from the start.

“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of universities went into this without doing due diligence to begin with,” said Ms Glaser, director of the China Power Project at CSIS.

But another analyst, Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars, questioned the ability or willingness of Tufts or any other university to truly guard against political interference when the programmes only involved instructors vetted by the Chinese government.

It’s inconceivable, said Ms Peterson, policy director at the conservative advocacy group, that any instructor approved in Beijing would offer students an even-handed discussion of topics that include Chinese Uighurs, the Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.

“The Tufts contract has a lot of window dressing on it – there are a lot of nicely quotable sections that sound like it’s making a big change,” Ms Peterson said. “But I don’t see a lot of significant changes in the on-the-ground way that this is likely to play out.”

Nevertheless, many US universities seem determined to maintain the Confucius Institutes. Tufts officials said the relationship has proven valuable not just for the classes that are offered, but for helping to build ties such as a Tufts partnership with Beijing Normal University.

The biggest recent decline in Confucius Institutes partnerships came when Congress passed legislation requiring all universities using Department of Defense money for foreign-language training programmes to cut their links to the Confucius Institutes. All 13 affected institutions complied.

An important part of Tufts’ new strategy, Ms Glaser said, includes the agreement’s limit of two years, rather than the previous five-year term, as a way of tightening the university’s control.

But another US government action may prove more effective than the law restricting Pentagon language funding. That crackdown involves the US Education Department accusing numerous US universities of habitually failing to comply with a law requiring colleges to report all annual income from foreign sources that exceeds $250,000 (£195,000).

A key motivation behind that move is the concern about national security risks related to the access to US academia that China enjoys through the Confucius Institutes.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: New life for Confucius Institutes?

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Reader's comments (1)

There's an Alice in Wonderland quality to American panic about 'foreign influence.' After not merely 'influencing,' but violently overthrowing dozens of foreign governments in recent decades, suddenly the country is panicking because its President is under the control of Russia and its universities, bastions of freedom and enlightenment, are being 'influenced' by China. All without shred of evidence, of course, or even a plausible motive. And all recounted with completely straight faces.

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