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The Future of Confucius Institutes in the U.S.

William & Mary students participate in a dragon dance as a part of the opening ceremonies of William & Mary’s Confucius Institute in April 2012. Image by Stephan Salpukas/WM Creative Services. United States, 2012.

The WMCI also provides community classes open to students and non-students. This is a September 2013 WMCI cooking class taught by a local Chinese chef. Image by William & Mary Confucius Institute. United States, 2013.

The WMCI sponsored a traditional music concert on March 21, 2014 that included performances by professional and student musicians. Image by William & Mary Confucius Institute. United States, 2014.

The WMCI participates in university-wide events, like the homecoming parade in October 2014. Image by William & Mary Confucius Institute. United States, 2014.

The Chinese Language Competition is an annual event open to all levels of Chinese language learners at William & Mary. Honor Leahy performs her phone conversation for the judges in the April 2014 competition. Image by William & Mary Confucius Institute. United States, 2014.

The Dalai Lama came to speak at William & Mary in October of 2012 at the invitation of multiple student organizations. The university received no protest from the WMCI for the event. Image by Matt Carpenter/The Flat Hat. United States, 2012.

Honor Leahy stood in front of the lecture hall, looking at her audience and taking a deep breath to calm her nerves as she waited for silence. Leahy was about to compete in the 2014 Chinese Language Competition at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

The Tennessee native was only a freshman at the time and was still in her first year of learning Chinese. She had spent the last few weeks preparing a short phone conversation for the April competition. She was ready - but still nervous.

“It was like baking a cake for someone else using their own recipe,” Leahy said. “You’re giving something to them that’s already theirs, so you hope it’s good enough and you hope it’s authentic.”

The event was sponsored by the William & Mary Confucius Institute, an educational organization that provides Chinese language and culture classes to the university students and surrounding community. The WMCI hosts cultural events throughout the year, from holiday celebrations to musical performances. It also partially funds several language instructors within William & Mary’s Chinese Language and Literature department.

Before coming to William & Mary, Leahy had limited exposure to China - she says her only experience with Chinese culture was “Chinese food, and it was crappy Chinese food.” Now she describes learning the language as one of her passions. In addition to potentially minoring in Chinese, Leahy also hopes to spend a semester in China. And she credits the WMCI will significantly strengthening her experience.

The Confucius Institute is not unique to William & Mary. In the U.S. alone, there are over 450 Confucius Institutes on university campuses and in K-12 schools, with many located around the world. For schools like William & Mary, relations between the university and the Confucius Institute have been quite harmonious. The two groups frequently work together to bring speakers and cultural programs to students as a way of augmenting the College’s Asian Studies program.

Yet some schools, including the University of Chicago, do not have a harmonious relationship with their Confucius Institutes. For these schools, the tension does not come from the language and culture programs the Institutes provide, but rather the structure of the Institutes. The Institutes are run by highly-trained staff and teachers, but their funding comes from the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The Confucius Institutes, which are run by a larger Chinese educational organization called Hanban, have been on American university campuses for over ten years, but only in the past few years has serious conflict erupted. In October 2013, Marshall Sahlins, professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, published an article that decried the Confucius Institutes’ practices on topics including censorship, secrecy, and discriminatory hiring practices. By June 2014, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had published a report calling on all American universities with Confucius Institutes to review their relationships with the Institutes and consider cutting ties. Just a few months later, in September, the University of Chicago decided not to renew its contract with its Confucius Institute. The following month, Pennsylvania State University did the same.

In Sahlins’ opinion, the University of Chicago Confucius Institute infringed on the University’s academic freedom. When he learned that the University of Chicago had signed a contract with Hanban for a Confucius Institute, Sahlins said, “it struck me as a scandal.” He believed teachers from the Confucius Institute presented a one-sided view of China because Hanban hired and trained them. By utilizing these teachers and the Institute, Sahlins argued that the University was failing to uphold its tenants of academic integrity and, by extension, freedom of speech. As he saw it, “The gross idea of subcontracting teaching to a foreign government was of course contrary to the principles of academic freedom upon which the university was founded.”

Academics such as Sahlins do not claim that Confucius Institutes enforce hard censorship, which would be an explicit ban on the discussion or research of certain topics. Instead, Sahlins argues these organizations implicitly encourage self-censorship. Individuals avoid talking about topics like Tibet, Taiwan, or the Tiananmen Square massacre out of fear of offending the Chinese faculty that work with the schools’ Confucius Institutes. Because such issues are not discussed, students do not get a well-rounded education on China, and faculty research is truncated. As Sahlins says, “All those things are politically off the agenda of the Confucius Institutes, deliberately so—which gives a very distorted view of what China is.”

After Sahlins’ article was published, there was an uproar in the media. Sahlins’ article brought new attention to the conflict. In June 2014, the AAUP published a report calling on all American universities to sever ties with Confucius Institutes unless the university could establish unilateral control over the Confucius Institute. It also encouraged universities to ensure all Confucius Institute teaching staff the same academic freedom as its faculty, and that the university contract with the Confucius Institute is made public.

Joerg Tiede, an Illinois Wesleyan University professor who was on the AAUP subcommittee that authored this report, noted in a phone interview that the report was “not an attack on [Confucius Institutes and the Chinese government], so much as a response to the media.” The AAUP subcommittee conducted no independent research on the topic according to Tiede, and the report itself only cites Sahlins’ article. The subcommittee’s responsibility, which mainly involves monitoring academic freedom at universities around the U.S., was much too large for it to conduct its own research on specific topics like the Confucius Institutes. If there were specific cases of violation of academic freedom within the U.S., the committee was obligated to conduct its own investigation. But for this case, he said media reports were sufficient evidence to write the AAUP report.

One professor at George Washington University disagreed with the AAUP.

“I think it’s posed as a debate over academic freedom,” Edward McCord, the director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies said in a phone interview. “Somehow Confucius Institutes [are believed to] restrict academic freedom at some universities and frankly I just find that bogus and simply not true.”

McCord believes that Confucius Institutes were specifically designed to avoid sensitive political issues. Their focus is on improving understanding of Chinese language and culture, and not become a staging ground for political battles.

According to their constitution, Confucius Institutes are intended to “promote educational and cultural exchange” so as to combat misperceptions of China around the world.

As McCord says, the Chinese government “thinks China is not seen correctly in the West… and they think that if we understand Chinese language and culture, we’ll have a better understanding of China.”

Thus, Confucius Institutes only focus on language and culture instruction, much to the chagrin of Sahlins and others.

However, there is more to this debate than just teaching American students how to write Chinese characters or how to make dumplings. Confucius Institutes are seen as part of a wider Chinese soft power push around the world.

According to James Reardon-Anderson, a professor who specializes in China at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the Confucius Institutes are a form of “soft diplomacy similar to U.S. initiatives since World War II.”

Others, like Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, share this view. According to Beauchamp-Mustafaga, the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief editor, Confucius Institutes are a “part of a broader government initiative [to] push Chinese power abroad.”

Reardon-Anderson believes that the Confucius Institutes are a “perfectly legitimate activity.” He argues that their purpose is comparable to the United States’ goal in establishing the Peace Corps. Soft power activities counterbalance hard power activities, such as military intervention or economic sanctions. However, Sahlins and others are strongly opposed to this kind of activity.

“It is a larger political problem of the outreach of the Chinese party state into the cultural life [in] various countries around the world,” says Sahlins, “so obviously it’s a global problem.”

When put in context of current US-China relations, Sahlins’ reaction seems to be well-founded. “As Chinese power has grown in other ways, people are seeing Chinese rise in hard ways,” says Lauren Dickey, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As China has risen in recent years, the American public has become more aware of China’s presence in the U.S. The Confucius Institute debate has arisen as America’s relationship China has become more contentious.

“Progress has been tough or difficult. There have been a lot of areas we disagree with Beijing,” says Dickey. At the top levels of government policy-making, “we’ve been recalibrating, but it has been a bumpy few years,” she continues. Citing issues that span from territorial disputes to the treatment of ethnic minorities to US military action in the Pacific, Dickey notes, “often times we’re talking past one another and not talking to one another.” Both sides keep revisiting areas of tension, but so far solutions have been rare.

Dickey’s analysis of the relationship between the two governments also sheds some light on the declining American public opinion of China. According to the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans felt favorably towards China in 2011. However, by 2014, only 35 percent felt favorably towards China. While Americans do not typically see China as a partner, they also don’t see China as an enemy, according to 2013 Pew survey results. Public opinion of China seems to mirror government relations. As Tun-jen Cheng, a William & Mary professor who specializes in US-China relations, said in an interview, “It’s not quite equanimous relationships. definitely more adversarial than cooperative recently.” While recently, the U.S. and China have had areas of great cooperation, tension still remains.

McCord believes there is a flaw in the way the American public views China. “They assume that there must be some kind of insidious Chinese plot under there that’s going to undermine American freedom,” McCord argues. “It’s almost like an assumption: if it’s Chinese, they must be doing this.” According to McCord, this belief that there must be ulterior motives has driven the debate to where it is today. Even though Confucius Institutes were designed to combat misunderstanding, McCord believes that the debate arose because the Institutes themselves were misunderstood.

One of the main areas of misunderstanding is the actual purpose of the Confucius Institutes. Both an Economist article and Sahlins cite a Chinese government official, Li Changchu, saying that Confucius Institutes are “an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up.”

But McCord argues that the word “propaganda” (which is “xuanchuan” in Chinese) has a neutral connotation in Chinese, unlike the extremely negative connotation in English. The word originally meant to present the view of your organization, but now, “It’s so tainted in English you can’t even say it without raising eyebrows,” McCord says. Making reference to the Catholic Church’s use of the word he notes, “For the Church, propaganda was like ‘we want to get the word out.’”

Each Confucius Institute is different in its affiliation to its host school and its relationship with the students. At the University of Maryland, the site of the first Confucius Institute, the organization only teaches non-credit bearing classes and provides a teacher training program for the Chinese teachers brought in through the Institute. At William & Mary, however, the Institute teaches Chinese language classes through the Department of Modern Languages and actively supports the on-campus Chinese House, a dorm specifically dedicated to learning Chinese. Thus, misunderstanding also arises in these areas of difference between the Institutes.

Amid the confusion and misunderstanding, there are also undertones of fear. “There is a misunderstanding of what the Confucius Institutes are meant to do,” says Dickey, “but there is [also] still a fear.”

McCord also believes fear plays a role in the debate. “I think there is no academic freedom issue involved with this at all,” he says, “[instead it may be] a fear that people have of China.” The American perception of China is shaped by current events and government relationships with China. As government relationships have become bumpy and public opinion declined, a fear of China has been growing. Jennifer Lee, an assistant professor of Chinese Studies at William & Mary, notes: “We originally held an unquestioned position in the world, but now China is questioning that.” She believes that American fear of China shows a lack of American confidence, but that “there is no need to be afraid of China.”

A good number of China-related current events center around politically sensitive issues, like the treatment of ethnic minorities or territorial claims. Part of Marshall Sahlins’ argument was that sensitive political issues were not part of the university dialogue with the Confucius Institute, even though in his opinion they should be. Just as at the government level, “We don’t want them to be talking at us,” Dickey says, “we want to be in a dialogue with them.” Universities and local citizens want to be part of the dialogue with the Confucius Institutes. Both sides have their own opinions, but the challenge is articulating them in a way that engages the other side in the discussion.

Even though political dialogues are not part of the Confucius Institute agenda, this restriction does not mean that dialogues cannot happen elsewhere on campus. Stephan Hanson, the director of William & Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies, points out, “Very few donors give you completely unrestricted money that you can do anything with.” Donors can control what happens with their money, but they cannot feasibly control what else happens on a university campus. Hanson says, “If we were to actually not be doing any other activity at all, that would be completely unacceptable, but we don’t allow those restrictions.” William & Mary hosts numerous events through various academic departments on China-related topics, in addition to Confucius Institute-sponsored events.

Even though it can be challenging for universities and their Confucius Institutes to talk to and not past each other, Hanson believes it can be done. He states, “There are some ways in which you manage those relationships [between the school and the Institute] so that people are both understood and feel respected, but there is also diversity of opinion expressed freely on campus in general.” He believes the WMCI has benefited William & Mary students. From language instruction to cultural activities to outside speakers, the WMCI contributions to the university “have ramped up our China program in a pretty significant way,” says Hanson.

Leahy is one of many students who have benefited from the Confucius Institutes. She won the 2014 Chinese Language Competition in the beginners bracket and plans to compete again in the 2015 competition. For Leahy, language learning is less about government relations or current events—instead it is about interpersonal relationships. She has several good friends who are international students from China and loves practicing with them. “Although a lot of them do learn English, I feel like it is fair to meet them in the middle. You don’t want to expect everybody to know what you know,” she says.