Soft Power U: Chinese Propaganda in American Higher Education


China offers an increasingly lucrative market for American universities. It is the leading source of foreign students—who pay full tuition, unlike American students at in-state institutions—and provides more than a third of all international students in the United States. China is also home to fourteen American universities’ overseas campuses, many of which the Chinese government helped construct. (Six of them recently reported making money or projecting net revenue in the near future.)

These deepening relationships aren’t necessarily bad, though China has a history of pressing its influence to entrench its international power. Another form of Chinese investment in American higher education is more suspect: Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes are campus centers dedicated to teaching and promoting Chinese language and culture. Generously funded by China, they offer universities pre-paid teachers and textbooks, along with operating funds. Currently, 103 American universities have accepted China’s offer—but at a great price.

I’ve just completed a major study of Confucius Institutes (CIs) in the United States, focusing on case studies of the twelve CIs located in New York and New Jersey. I found that Confucius Institutes threaten the autonomy of American universities, jeopardize the intellectual freedom of professors and students and give the Chinese government unparalleled access to American college students. Colleges and universities should close their Confucius Institutes, and federal and local governments should exercise oversight.

Confucius Institutes outsource the college classroom to a foreign government. They are directly linked to the Chinese government, which exercises authority over hiring decisions, curriculum choices and syllabi. The Hanban, an agency within the Chinese Ministry of Education, authorizes the creation of Confucius Institutes and requires universities to seek its approval on all programs and courses. Though an American professor or administrator directs each local Confucius Institute, he or she is constrained to hire teachers from a slate of candidates put forward by the Hanban. The Hanban also chooses the textbooks. No other nation has such direct control over what American students learn about its history and culture.

Under such supervision by China, Confucius Institutes present a whitewashed version of Chinese political history and current events. As taught at CIs, the Chinese government never jails religious minorities, no Tibetans self-immolate to protest China’s insistence on claiming Tibet as a province, no Falun Gong followers have their organs harvested and Tiananmen Square is only a tourist attraction, not the site of the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators. Embarrassing episodes in the history of the Communist nation simply do not come up.

When I visited Confucius Institutes, I asked staff how they would handle questions about Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and other matters the Chinese regime deems sensitive. Most said they could not answer such questions from students—ostensibly because they were “off-topic” or outside the purview of Confucius Institutes. In one clarifying comment, the Chinese director of New Jersey City University’s Confucius Institute told me how she might handle an in-class discussion of Tiananmen Square: “I would show a photograph and point out the beautiful architecture.”

China has occasionally admitted its interest in using Confucius Institutes to develop its soft power abroad. In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” A new documentary, In the Name of Confucius, by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Doris Liu, showcases footage of Chinese bureaucrats discussing what they hope to accomplish through Confucius Institutes. The director general of Confucius Institutes Headquarters, Xu Lin, brags on Chinese television that her office has set up Confucius Institutes so that top-tier institutions “work for us.”

In what ways might American universities “work for” the Chinese government? Their positions of power and prestige in American culture lend China a veneer of respectability. Other nations send teachers abroad, too—France has the Alliance Française, Germany the Goethe-Institut, and Spain the Cervantes Institute. But these nations operate independent nonprofits in separate offices and market extracurricular courses. China alone locates its Institutes at college campuses, where they can feed off the colleges’ reputation and offer classes that count for college credit.

But the college classroom is a place for academic debate, not foreign propaganda. Colleges and universities should close their Confucius Institutes—whatever the financial perks China may offer. It is in principle inappropriate and in practice harmful to intellectual freedom. The Chinese government has no place in American higher education.

Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars and the author of Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.

By Rachelle Peterson
Real Clear Education


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