Sector urged to put brakes on Confucius Institutes’ expansion

Book dubs Chinese government-funded centres ‘a threat to academic freedom’

November 20, 2014

Confucius Institutes are a threat to the principles of academic freedom and incidences of scholarly malpractice are “disturbingly common”, according to a new book about the Chinese government-funded centres.

The institutes, which have branches on hundreds of university campuses, are under the control of Hanban, a branch of China’s Ministry of Education that supplies funds to cover the cost of set-up and provision of Chinese language instructors, an arrangement that ostensibly benefits everyone.

However, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, written by Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey distinguished service professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, highlights a series of examples that he says demonstrate how academic integrity has been damaged at some universities in an attempt to avoid upsetting the Chinese government.

The many examples cited include “self-censorship” by academics, and the decision by the University of Sydney to host a visit from the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in an off-campus location, reportedly to avoid “damaging its ties to China, including funding for its Confucius Institute”. The university later reversed this decision.

Professor Sahlins said he was prompted to write the book after the establishment of a Confucius Institute at his own university, describing it as “preposterous” that an institution of “such intellectual distinction and integrity” would introduce a programme controlled by a council of high officials from China into its own degree courses.

Earlier this year, however, the University of Chicago decided not to renew its contract with the Chinese government, effectively bringing its Confucius Institute to an end.

Pennsylvania State University also closed its institute recently, stating that “several of our goals are not consistent” with those operating the programme.

It would be “desirable” to close down all the institutes, Professor Sahlins told Times Higher Education, but this was “not easily accomplished”, given that there are almost 450 Confucius Institutes and about 650 Confucius classrooms in more than 120 countries.

“A more realistic objective is to slow down and reverse the spread of Confucius Institutes. For this, it is most important that prestigious schools, like…the University of Chicago, terminate their institutes,” he added. “The most effective initiative must come from the top, from institutions that have traditionally been the models of academic achievement and integrity. Others will follow.”

Professor Sahlins insisted he did not write the book “to take a crack at the People’s Republic of China”, nor did it “represent some sort of rabid anti-communism of a McCarthyite or Cold War sort – as defenders of Confucius Institutes have claimed”.

“Rather, the issue is the preservation of the values of academic freedom and intellectual autonomy upon which universities in the US and most of the world are founded,” he said.

Noted China scholar Perry Link, chancellorial chair for innovative teaching at the University of California, Riverside, said that the answer to the question “should people outside a university select some of its teaching staff” if they provide money tied to “strong messages that certain topics must be avoided” was “obvious”.

“In the case of Confucius Institutes, however, an odd muddle intervenes,” he said.

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