US campuses still sceptical of Confucius Institutes under Biden

Despite new encouragement, campuses that quit under Trump not considering reversals

February 25, 2021
Source: iStock

US universities appear to have little interest in reviving lost affiliations with Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, even with the Biden administration easing federal pressure on them.

The number of US universities with Confucius Institute programmes is down to 55, from nearly twice as many in 2017, and all three with announced plans to close this year are affirming their commitment to that decision.

The moves reflect a calculation among US universities that they have ways to teach their students about Chinese language and culture without continuing to fight politically hyped concerns over the Confucius Institutes.

Emory University, which still plans to let its Confucius Institutes affiliation expire in November, reiterated that its decision “does not reflect any diminished interest in engagement with China”.

Central Connecticut State University and Colorado State University also said they were maintaining their plans to close their Confucius Institutes programmes in June.

They affirmed that intent even after the Biden administration cancelled a Trump administration regulation that would have required all universities to publicly disclose their Confucius Institutes contracts to remain eligible to enrol foreign students.

Despite that move, universities saw both political and legal challenges remaining for Confucius Institutes, which conservative critics persist in describing as a Chinese government tool for the political indoctrination of US college students.

Confucius Institutes are “among the multitude of threats we face stemming from China”, top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives said in a letter to Mr Biden protesting his voiding of the Trump order on contract disclosures.

Dozens of US campuses ended their Confucius Institute partnerships during the political pressure of the Trump years, especially after Congress passed legislation in 2018 forbidding Pentagon funding for Chinese language study at any university that hosts an institute.

Mr Biden, despite ending the Trump order, has generally signalled plans for a tough line towards China. That’s in addition to congressional Republicans, who have long seen attacking the Confucius Institutes as an effective political weapon.

A highlight was their 96-page US Senate report in February 2019 that compiled a list of complaints about Confucius Institutes at the school and college level. The unease of its Republican authors centred on their understanding that the institutes give US students a Chinese government-sanctioned view of Chinese history.

A report that same month by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, however, said that the 10 university cases it studied found no political limitations associated with Confucius Institutes and no use of its material for credit-bearing courses.

The GAO assessment “dispels many of the rumours and mistruths that have been used to politicise and restrict student access to much-needed language resources”, said a spokesman for the Confucius Institute US Center in Washington.

The Biden administration appears to be taking seriously such perspectives, “instead of defaulting to the misinformation that seems to have coloured the previous administration’s approach”, the spokesman said.

That nevertheless appears too late for most US universities. The University of Maryland became the first US university to host a Confucius Institute, in 2004, and then ended it last year, citing the restriction on Pentagon funding.

“Our decision at this time still stands,” said a Maryland spokeswoman.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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