Confucian Censorship

How the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute’s presence impacts Columbia

By Miya Lee

Since 2004, Hanban, a non-profit affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education has established 400 Confucius Institutes in high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the world. Funded and supervised by the Chinese government, Confucius Institutes aim “to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries” by providing educational resources and instructors. In 2011, Hanban pledged to donate $1 million to Columbia over a five-year span in order to establish a Confucius Institute.

Although Columbia’s Confucius Institute is now technically up and running, there is strikingly little information available about the Institute and its operations. There is no Columbia webpage dedicated to the Confucius Institute, nor is there any mention of the Confucius Institute on the website for Columbia’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC), in which the Institute is held. For Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science and Chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia, this lack of information is troubling. “I think that all Columbia academic units including the Confucius Institute should be transparent,” Professor Nathan stated. As of now, Columbia has made no information available about the Confucius Institutes’ activities and governance structure, a fact that Professor Nathan believes should be corrected.

This lack of information is particularly alarming given the fact that Confucius Institutes are overseen by the Chinese government yet operate directly within the educational establishments of other countries. Indeed, this operational structure is what separates China’s Confucius Institute program from other countries’ government-backed language and cultural programs. While Germany’s Goethe Institutes and France’s Alliance Francaise centers are similar to China’s Confucius Institutes in their goal to promote the language and culture of their respective countries, they do not function within foreign high schools, colleges, and universities. China’s Confucius Institutes are unique in that they not only offer funding for foreign schools, but that they also offer to provide Chinese language instructors and coursework material.

Because China’s Confucius Institutes operate within the schools of other countries, many in academia have voiced their suspicions—if not outright disapproval—of the program. In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released a statement urging Canadian universities to terminate their partnership with the Institutes, citing a case at McMaster University in Ontario in which a Confucius Institute instructor felt that she was discriminated against for her belief in Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that is banned in China. In 2014, the American Association of University Professors issued a similar statement, arguing that “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.” That same year, more than 100 professors at the University of Chicago signed a petition calling on their University Senate to discontinue their Confucius Institute. The petition claimed that the instructors selected for the Confucius Institute program “are trained to ignore or divert questions on issues that are politically taboo in China, or indeed criminalized, such as the status of Taiwan, Tiananmen, the pro-Democracy movement, etcetera.” Five months after the professors’ petition was released, the University of Chicago terminated their partnership with the Confucius Institute program. A week later, Penn State University followed suit.

So, what is the role of the Confucius Institute at Columbia? Does Hanban select Chinese language instructors to teach at the university? And does Hanban have any authority over the curricula of Columbia’s Chinese classes? Does the university’s partnership with Hanban in any way limit Columbia’s commitment to academic freedom?

“No,” is the short answer according to Professor Lening Liu, the director of Columbia’s Chinese Language Program as well as the university’s Confucius Institute Director of Chinese Language Pedagogy. Professor Liu explained that Columbia was able to negotiate an individual agreement with Hanban that established Columbia’s Confucius Institute as solely research-oriented.

The Confucius Institute at Columbia—run by Professor Liu and two other EALAC faculty members who work as volunteers—does not offer Chinese language classes, does not have any influence over the coursework and textbooks used in Columbia classrooms, and has no input in the hiring of instructors. Rather, Columbia’s Confucius Institute serves simply as the means through which faculty within the EALAC Department can submit research-project proposals to request funding from Hanban.

“All the Chinese classes here are offered by our Chinese language program within the EALAC department,” Professor Liu asserted. “We have exchange teachers from China and Taiwan, but that exchange program started long before the Confucius Institute had been established. The role of the Confucius Institute here is to serve the faculty to conduct China-related research. That’s all.”

Professor Liu stressed that the Confucius Institute at Columbia has only been advantageous for the university. According to Professor Liu, Hanban has never interfered with Columbia’s academic operations, yet Hanban has funded every research proposal submitted by Columbia’s faculty through the university’s Confucius Institute. Professor Liu estimates that Hanban provides around $150,000 each year in support of five to six research projects. “I really don’t know how Confucius Institutes operate at other places but we just focus on what is beneficial to our faculty,” Professor Liu stated. “So far, all we can say is it works well for us.”

Based on the information Professor Liu provided, it seems that Columbia’s partnership with Hanban has, indeed, been beneficial for the university. However, it is worth considering the larger implications of Columbia’s involvement in China’s Confucius Institute program. Given the fact that other educational establishments may not have agreements with Hanban that protect academic freedom and non-discriminatory hiring, is Columbia contravening its intellectual and educational values by participating in—and thereby endorsing—the Confucius Institute program?

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