Truth or Fiction: Confucius Institutes, the Perfect Way to Share Chinese Culture?

Truth or Fiction: Confucius Institutes, the Perfect Way to Share Chinese Culture?

by Patty deBingo

Has the Communist Chinese government developed an insidious plan to infiltrate the educational systems from elementary through the universities in many nations under the guise of cultural enrichment programs. Or, are these programs a way to share culture and deepen friendships between the two nations? This program, the Confucius Institute, has been signed onto by many universities in the United States and across the world.

The Confucius Institutes (CI) is funded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is under the Education Ministry. They are presented as educational organizations by the CCP’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, which is located in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China. These CIs are designed to promote the Chinese language (Mandarin) and the culture of China.

Many universities are very open to having a Confucius Institute on their campus. Not only does it help a school financially, they say it helps draw the best and brightest Chinese students to come there and study. It can be an important contributor to Chinese language studies at a university.

Daniel Golden, an investigative journalist said, “The vast majority of Chinese students are just here to learn and maybe do research, and they bring energy and intelligence and a fresh perspective to American higher education and they’re quite valuable. It would be wrong and unfair to assume that some very large proportion of them are here for clandestine purposes.”

“When you set up a CI you get a ready-made partner,” said Nick Byrne, executive director of the Confucius Institute at the London School of Economics. “You don’t get millions of pounds, but you do get the equivalent in good will, collaboration and the ability to send students to China. Our focus is on the language of business and culture.” (link)

For primary and secondary schools, at almost no extra cost, the benefit is to be able to offer Chinese language in their curricula. Additionally, the children will learn about the art, music, and dance of China. The following are taken from the by-laws of the Confucius Institutes (link):

  • Confucius Institutes devote themselves to satisfying the demands of people from different countries and regions of the world who learn the Chinese language, to enhancing understanding of the Chinese language and culture by these peoples, to strengthening educational and cultural exchange and cooperation between China and other countries, to deepening friendly relationships with other nations, to promoting the development of multi-culturalism, and to construct a harmonious world.
  • The CIs shall abide by the laws and regulations of the countries in which they are located…and shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations of China (bold mine).
  • The CIs shall provide the following services: Chinese language training; training Chinese language instructors and providing Chinese language teaching resources; providing information and consultative services concerning China’s education, culture, and so forth; conducting language and cultural exchange activities between China and other countries.
  • The CI Headquarters shall be governed by the Council. Members of the council are appointed directly by the Headquarters.
  • Duties of the CI Headquarters include: Formulating development plans; approving the implementation plans of annual projects; providing guidelines and making assessments to activities carried out by CIs, supervising their operations and doing quality assurance management; providing support and teaching resources to individual CIs; and selecting and appointing directors and faculties from the Chinese side for individual CIs and training administrative personnel and instructors for these CIs.
  • An individual CI shall draw up plans for annual projects and submit them to headquarters for approval. CIs shall also submit the working schedules and summaries of their annual projects to the Headquarters for archiving purposes (bold mine).

If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.  ~~Confucius 

Perhaps their goals are not as straightforward as they sound. In a 2011 speech, Li Changchun, a Politburo member in Beijing said, “It (CI) has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.” He also said in 2009 that the CIs are an “important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Politico January 17, 2018 – How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms.  (link)

A Confucius Institute is controlled by an authoritarian government and beholden to its politics. The Chinese government provides seed money and the university has to match the amount, provide classrooms, teachers, and staff. This seems innocent enough but does it have a truly different hidden motive that is not just “introducing Chinese culture to American students?”

One might ask, who are the trained personnel and instructors, how many are really trained teachers, and how many are chosen to be spies to report to the Hanban? The teachers from China, who are selected and funded by the CCP, must follow the Communist party line and never vary from it.

As stated by the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, “Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes can be a life-altering experience. The Confucius Institute U.S. Center believes that a change in perspective can change the world.” (link)

Is this change in perspective part of a ‘silent’ Communist indoctrination by stifling free speech and discussion in the university classroom? Such subjects banned from discussions are: the Falun Gong practitioners who are persecuted tortured and killed by the communist government (a visiting professor from China at the McMaster University in Ontario was prohibited by Hanban to participate in the Falun Gong organization); the Tiananmen Square protests; the status of Tibet and Taiwan; the protests/status of Hong Kong; and domestic problems in China.

Teachers, who must follow the Communist party line, are trained to divert students away from these topics in the university classrooms. In effect, the CIs are silencing academic criticism of China’s communist regime. Is this what we want to have happening to freedom of speech in our university classrooms?

Following are several distinct incidents demonstrating how the CIs achieve advancing their goals from just one source. (link)

A participant in one university program said that all of above banned subjects could be searched for or discussed in any other class on campus. Alan Kluver, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M wrote, “Does Hanban inappropriately limit, either by proscription or staffing, the discussion of sensitive political discussions? There is little doubt that the Chinese government wants the CI movement to enhance its ‘soft power’, but just because Beijing wants that to happen doesn’t make it true.” (link)

A Chinese student and recent university graduate from the University of Maryland spoke of the “fresh air of free speech” in America. The official newspaper of the Communist Party rebuked her. She and her family (back home in China) became victims of harassment on social media.

Other concerns about the CI include concerns about the possibility of self-censorship and lack of inquiry in these programs. In 2009, North Carolina State University rescinded an invitation to the Dalai Lama because of pressure from the CI.

Professor Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics related to the Foreign Affairs Committee that there was “bullying and pressure. He added that he had seen clashes over funding from a ‘certain state’, and people have lost their positions if you raise these issues. He continued, “There is evidence that some parts of the student body are being manipulated and used by the [Chinese embassy] and their agents and that this is organized.”

The teaching materials often present the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda. This concern has been raised by many in different universities and by people in government in the USA and Canada. In 2010, Richard Fadden, head of Canada’s intelligence agency said that Confucius Institutes are “managed by people operating out of China’s embassy or consulates.” (link)

Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced a bill on March 12, 2019 that would establish a Department of Education-led inter-agency task force to address the vulnerabilities that are being seen on college campuses in the United States.

Banks stated that the CCP has a “long record” of ways to get information to Beijing, pressuring nationals who study in America to report information that they have observed and/or collected back to the communist regime and military in Beijing.

Western intelligence agencies have warned about the influence that these Confucius Institutes have in western countries and how they use this to present an unrealistic and restricted picture of what is happening in China. According to the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission, the CIs have been documented to be involved in organizing protests against topics that the CCP considers a threat to the stability to their iron-hand rule.

In Belgium, the former director of the CI was accused by Belgium authorities of supporting Chinese intelligence activities in the city. A Belgian newspaper reported that he recruited for the Chinese intelligence services and hired informants from the Chinese student and business communities in Belgium.

Confucius Institutes in the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France have closed due to the influence on their campuses of Chinese academics and researchers. Many have been investigated, dismissed, or arrested on suspicion of stealing intellectual property and other activities (from the South China Morning Post.) “Understanding other people’s viewpoints and cultures is more important than ever. The CIUS Center works to bridge the gaps between the U.S. and China and facilitates person-to-person cultural understanding and language development.” CIUS Center.

The Confucius Institutes send teachers or university graduate students, who are not always qualified, to elementary classrooms to teach Mandarin, art, and other cultural activities about China. There is supposed to be a qualified teacher in the classroom, but they often do not understand Mandarin and cannot know what is being taught. “Student interns teaching Mandarin Chinese to minors in K-12 schools without proper supervision creates an area of concern,” a State Department official told Inside Higher Ed. “When teaching a Chinese language course, they should be working under the supervision of an American co-teacher well-versed in the instructional material and able to speak and read Mandarin Chinese” (Inside Higher Ed, January 21, 2020.)

While this program is to teach the Chinese language, culture, and outreach to the community, especially elementary schools, are the elementary students in the USA and other countries being shown only the positive and beautiful side of China without knowing about the strict regulations on freedom of movement and free speech, and political dissident abuses?

At the K-12 level, the Toronto District School Board voted in June of 2014 to delay offering Mandarin classes to the district’s elementary students because parents said that the Chinese government has too much influence in the programs and their schools.

When asked to comment on the counterintelligence risk to U.S. national security from Chinese students in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics in American Universities, FBI Director Christopher Wary responded as follows: “I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re [China] exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it.” Wray said the FBI has been monitoring the institutes. (link).

A bipartisan report on Confucius Institutes was made by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE). “As China has expanded Confucius Institutes here in the U.S., it has systematically shut down key U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts on Chinese college campuses,” said Senator Portman. “We learned that schools in the United States— from kindergarten to college—have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that the Chinese government has refused to provide to the United States.” (link)

Senator Carper said, “It also highlights China’s resistance to our own cultural outreach efforts in their country. I hope this report encourages schools hosting Confucius Institute to evaluate how they impact free speech and debate on a campus and take steps to ensure academic freedom remains paramount. It should also propel policymakers to learn how we can fill any gaps that may exist in Chinese language education in the United States to avoid having our schools rely on the Chinese government to assume a role that we should be taking on ourselves.”

According to the National Association of Scholars, a list last updated in December 2019, indicated that 29 American colleges closed or said they would close their CIs. The University of Michigan was one, saying they would still have Chinese programs but they would be incorporated in other areas of study at the University. However, like many U.S. universities, U-M still welcomes Chinese graduate students who mainly study business, science, and technology, and often receive federal grants to do research. Who owns the results of this research; are any of the results of these research grants funneled directly to China? These students bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to a university, which may turn a blind eye to the several negative effects some of these students have who may be spying for the CCP.

Many reasons have been given as to why these institutions would close the CIs. They include: inadequate student interest; concern about visas; needing a certified Mandarin Chinese language teacher in every CI classroom; not enough trained teachers; lack of freedom of speech and concerns that the Chinese government is using the CIs as a way to gain information on research and/or steal intellectual property from a university and finally, China’s refusal to allow American Universities to have free speech in China. At least eight universities closed their CIs after Congress passed the 2018 spending bill barring colleges that hosted CIs from receiving monies through the Pentagon-funded Flagship Language program (Inside Higher Ed February 2020, link).

As these are all legitimate concerns, I would ask, why are these institutes allowing a Chinese Communist government use the facilities of a university to infiltrate the education of their students, be it at the early elementary through high school levels, or at a college university? Though Hanban denies anything other than this being a cultural program, they have donated millions of dollars to individual professors and universities to gain access to, specifically, scientific research and to make the communist regime look as if they are just another friendly nation to our children. They use Chinese student groups to alert Chinese consulates and embassies if Chinese nationals and American schools deviate from their party line.

The U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report calls CIs a front for infiltrating and spying. They “also advance Beijing’s preferred narrative and subvert important academic principles, such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom,” the report says.  (link)

Our universities like the revenue from Chinese graduate students and the Confucius Institutes, but is it worth it to allow the Chinese communist government to use the CIs in our schools at all age levels to spread its soft power and brainwash our children with their communist ideology under the pretext of teaching their language and culture? Many believe not, therefore should these Confucius Institutes be allowed to continue in the American educational institutions.

The question asked by Marshall Sahlins, “Why then, do American universities sponsor them?” must be answered.


For further information:

A large report from CHINA’S CONFUCIUS INSTITUTES: AN INQUIRY BY THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION. A Report of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, February 2019. This is a report of 19 pages with 50 footnotes of references. portman-carper-unveil-bipartisanreport-confucius-institutes-us

The New York Times: Critics Worry About Influence of Chinese Institutes on U.S. Campuses, March 2012. institute-fbi-scrutiny
Chinaforbiddennews US: Teachers at Confucius Institutes Violating Visa Law A Chinese speaker talking about how China uses illegal means to bring teaches from China for political infiltration. Feb.. 3, 2020. Harvard Professor’s Arrest for Lying about China Ties
The Washington Times – Feb. 18, 2020. “Free rein” no longer: State Department cracks down on Chinese
media working in U.S.

Politico – China Looks West: China’s Soft Power Offensive.. Diego Torres 12/26/17 Rachelle Peterson 5/9/17 American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse.

The Herald David Leask 24 April 2015. Worldwide Campaign Launched against Confucius Institutes
A 28 page report by Marshall Sahlins, October 30, 2013. China U. Confucius Institutes censor political discussions and restrain the free exchange of ideas. Why then, do American universities sponsor them? Binkley 6/24/29 Trump administration reviewing foreign money to US colleges Peng Ming-min 5/31/11 Taipei Times. China Picks Pockets of Academics Worldwide Chris Fuchs 9/19/19 nbc news, Asian American The Chinese Student Threat? by Elizaabeth Redden. 2/15/18.

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