Commentary | Confucius Institutes: Reform or Recall?

Commentary | Confucius Institutes: Reform or Recall?

AJ Caughey

- International Scholar
- Southeast Asian Affairs Specialist

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Chinese officials announced this year that military spending in 2017 would rise by over $146 billion, an increase of 7.6% from the 2015 budget. Coupled with recent spats in the South China Sea, China’s increased defense spending has neighbors and the United States worried. As China nurtures its hard power, a complementary effort to win hearts and minds overseas has become an important feature of Chinese foreign policy. Policymakers hope that a more positive image abroad could assuage concerns about China’s rise, but the PRC often finds it has limited political appeal in developed countries. In other words, as state-owned news outlet Xinhua observed, “China has a long way to go to effectively deliver soft power.” That’s certainly true in the United States, where a 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center found that less than half – only 44 percent of Americans – view China favorably.

Controversial Confucius Institutes are at the heart of the Chinese government’s push to cultivate soft power in the United States. Funded by the Ministry of Culture, Confucius Institutes establish centers at host universities to offer Chinese language learning and cultural programming, including lessons on traditional dance and Chinese cooking. However, allegations that Confucius Institutes have limited academic free speech on host campuses have dogged the program. This has made American staff, students, and media increasingly suspicious of Confucius Institutes. The most ardent critics argue that the programs should be shut down. Still, though recent controversy has threatened Confucius Institutes’ potency as instruments of soft power, the program remains valuable for both the United States and China. Mutual distrust makes closing Institutes a tempting option, but reforming the program to safeguard academic freedom on campuses would better secure benefits for both Chinese policymakers and American universities.

Confucius Institutes are part of a wider Chinese effort to improve their image internationally, but the Institutes have a unique role in developed countries. To boost its appeal abroad, China has often relied on mutually beneficial economic initiatives that provide jobs and infrastructure, like Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative or 2014’s $12 billion railway deal in Nigeria. Development contracts are lucrative for Chinese businesses, but they also bring jobs and services to partner countries. Economic investments like these are part of the reason China enjoys high favorability ratings in developing countries.

However, China’s growing economy looks less like opportunity and more like a threat to many workers in the United States. The 2016 presidential campaign exacerbated the perception among Americans that unfair Chinese trade practices were decimating American jobs, particularly in manufacturing and heavy industry. Though these concerns are declining in the U.S. as China’s economy slows, fears of a Chinese economic threat severely limit the soft power gains that might otherwise come from Chinese investment projects in the U.S. As an alternative, the PRC has directed substantial resources to cultural diplomacy. China is now spending $10 billion per year on public diplomacy initiatives, including educational exchanges, Chinese festivals, and public advertisements. In the United States, Confucius Institutes are central to China’s soft power project.

Demand for Chinese language programs and strong backing from the Chinese government has encouraged Confucius Institutes’ rapid expansion in the United States. Only a decade after the program’s founding, 480 Confucius Institutes have been established across 6 continents, including over 100 in the U.S. Cash-strapped colleges with weaker language programs see ready-made partners, since Confucius Institutes come with funding, textbooks, and Chinese language instructors. This start-up funding usually totals to about $200,000, which the university is expected to match through in-kind donations of space and staff hours. Most Confucius Institutes also arrange partnerships between host universities and Chinese colleges, which are especially attractive for US schools eager to expand their study abroad programs to China. Confucius Institutes’ resources and access are a tempting offer to many U.S. universities, but growing academic controversy has led several schools to reconsider their commitment to the Institutes.

Recently, Confucius Institutes have been rocked by a wave of bad press alleging academic censorship and limits on free speech. In 2014, the American Association of University Professors said that Confucius Institutes create an environment of academic self-censorship and set curriculum boundaries that discourage discussion of sensitive topics like Taiwan and Tiananmen. Further, Ontario’s McMaster University closed its Institute after a former teacher alleged the university was “giving in to discrimination” because her contract with the Institute prohibited her participation in Falun Gong, a religious group maligned by the PRC. Industry groups like the National Association of Scholars (NAS) have charged that several Confucius Institutes have informal speech codes restricting the topics of conversation in classrooms. Disturbing reports like these led to a string of negative headlines, and the New York Times described Confucius Institutes unflatteringly as“cultural outposts of the Chinese government. Hanban, which oversees Confucius Institutes globally, denied the charges; Xinhua said, “either fear of other cultures or ignorance – or both – drove detractors.”

In response to recent negative press, Chinese policymakers may have recognized that central control and any restrictions on free speech reverse the appeal of the Institutes. At the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, administrators were able to negotiate stronger contracts that gave American staff autonomy in the hiring process and protected academic freedom. This eliminated some of the suspicion surrounding the Institute at the university while also securing that Mandarin language education would continue in this struggling area of New York. While the Ministry of Culture hopes Confucius Institutes will positively shape U.S. opinion, controls on curricula and free speech restrictions have done exactly the opposite by reinforcing negative perceptions of China as oppressive and illiberal. At the same time, U.S. suspicions of the program may cloud decision makers’ judgment: the NAS’s primary recommendation urges universities to sever ties with Confucius Institutes completely, though they are clear that there are “few smoking guns, and no evidence of outright policies banning certain topics of discussion.”

The debate surrounding Confucius Institutes encapsulates the pervasive suspicion and confusion that pose a real threat to an increasingly vital relationship. Though small and specific, SUNY’s example here is a practical role model for future U.S.-China engagement. Rather than severing all ties with the institute, SUNY looked for – and found – areas of cooperation amenable to both sides. American policy makers be naïve to search for “win-win” outcomes on many issues; “win-win” itself being a sweeping Chinese catchphrase for an idealized relationship U.S. relationship that Secretary Tillerson unfortunately parroted. It’s still critical that America uncompromisingly defend U.S. values vigorously. However, SUNY’s engagement is a potent reminder that rewarding compromise can still be found and valued in this convoluted relationship. As China develops both its hard and soft power, the United States should stand resolutely for liberal values including free speech while also seeking out areas of cooperation before shutting out Chinese engagement.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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