Confucius Institutes – Chronicle Discussion

The current Chronicle of Higher Education has this piece, available to non-subscribers for a few days, on worries raised about academic freedom introduced by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes on university campuses.

For copyright reasons, I won’t cut and paste the whole article, but if anyone misses the “free article” window for this piece, here’s a pdf “printout” of it for private use: At U.S. Colleges, Chinese-Financed Centers Prompt Worries About Academic Freedom – Faculty – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I will paste from the article, the following kernel of the worry:

Some faculty members and experts on Chinese politics worry, however, that the rapid proliferation of the institutes poses a threat to academic freedom and shared governance because of the way they involve the Chinese government in colleges’ affairs. Professors at the University of Chicago protested its decision to open an institute there, and University of Pennsylvania faculty members cited concerns about Chinese-government involvement in opting not to seek to establish one.

The institutes “perform a propaganda function,” says June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami and a former member of the Congressionally established U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which monitors the implications of trade agreements between the two countries.

“It would be stupid,” Ms. Dreyer says, “for the Chinese government to spend money on something that did not further its interests.”

David Prager Branner, an adjunct associate professor of East Asian languages and culture at Columbia University who has studied the Confucius Institutes, says he fears that colleges with the institutes can become dependent on Chinese funds and thus susceptible to pressure from the Chinese government to stifle speech it opposes, such as expressions of support for Tibetan or Taiwanese independence. Foreign-language programs at American colleges, he says, are often so starved for resources that “they are not in a position to reject money, no matter where it comes from, or with what strings.”

Any thoughts about the issue?

9 replies on “Confucius Institutes – Chronicle Discussion”

  1. This is a worry I’ve had about the Confucius Institutes as well, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough about their structure to know whether this worry is well founded. The Indian government, apparently, has refused to allow Confucius Institutes into their universities, as they consider them a form of Chinese “soft power”. I suppose it would be necessary to understand much more about the organization of these institutes to know whether academic freedom would be an issue. There’s certainly a way an institute could be funded by a government while enjoying a relatively high degree of autonomy. To what extent this is the case with Confucius institutes, it’s hard to say. I wonder if it is actually the case (as some in the article suggest) that the Chinese government exerts less pressure on institutes in certain areas.

    Also, it’s great to hear from David Branner–he was one of my first teachers of Chinese!

  2. I am a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and I have known people from the Confucius Institute since 2007. It seems to me that those worries mentioned in the article cannot apply to the Confucius Institute at UM. If there were any pressure from the Chinese government, then Professor Chuan Sheng Liu (the director of the Confucius Institute at UM) really did a good job to protect academic freedom here! I suppose some of us may be too sensitive to everything related to the Chinese government (which is actually understandable, given the bad record of the Chinese government)

  3. I confess I haven’t read much of the literature on soft power, but I have a hard time being very worried about it, or about the CIs. As I understand it, the idea of soft power is that it is really soft: it is not sneaky blackmail, but rather the influence that comes from putting one’s culture, values, and institutions out there for public consumption, absorption, and (one is supposed to hope) internalization. So just by learning Chinese or by paying attention to Chinese values and institutions, one is potentially susceptible to China’s “soft power.” As Sam Crane has emphasized in some of his blog posts, to the extent that claims about values are undermined by the manifest reality (e.g., if we took claims about harmony to be undermined by ubiquitous corruption), then there is no soft power to speak of. But in general it seems that soft power is going to be an inevitable, and not so obviously problematic, by product of cross-cultural exchange.

    Just to be clear: I would not be in favor of limitations on freedom of speech as a result of threats from the Chinese government. But it seems to me that (1) soft power is a different issue from this, and (2) there really is no evidence that the CIs have made universities susceptible to such pressures. I understand the debates, which in a certain way resemble earlier debates about whether it was OK that U.S. area studies programs (especially East Asian Studies) were built with U.S. Defense Department money. It’s always good to keep a close watch on such situations. But so far, anyway, I don’t see a problem. What am I missing?

    • Agreed on “soft power”. Some of the fear of this kind of influence does seem a bit paranoid. I think part of the worry of the Indians and Canadians is the intention of the Chinese government in advancing the CIs, as well as, in the case of India at least, concern about the relative economic power of China compared to its own, as well as border disputes, etc. India is highly suspicious of Chinese motives, thinking them looking to gain advantage in foreign public opinion to get international support in its border disputes with India, and economic advantage. I think the soft power issue could potentially tie into the academic freedom issue, though–the Chinese government might support only work that ties the values of early Chinese thought, for example, to the government in some way, or simply present “Chinese values” (whatever those are) in such a light as to suggest that they are exemplified by the current government and social system, which would then undermine justifications for even internal criticism of the Chinese system. Not to suggest that the CIs are involved in this kind of thing, but this is at least a potential way the soft power issue could be problematically connected to academic freedom issues. I think the best way to proceed concerning the CIs, however, is not to disallow them or worry just based on their growth, but to keep a close eye on them, as you suggest, because there’s the *potential* of academic freedom issues.

  4. Interesting remarks. I wonder what the agreements actually look like between the funding source and the relevant universities. If there is enough room for the Chinese government to pull, or not renew, funding for these institutes by fiat, then it seems like at least the following sort of problem for academic freedom could emerge. Suppose a university wants to host a prominent dissident or defector in an academic position, either for a lecture or as a visiting scholar. There may be financial pressures to think twice about extending such an invitation if, for example, a prominent chair in Chinese literature (e.g. at Stanford) or a set of Chinese language courses is being funded primarily through the Confucius Institute.

    That’s how soft power works and whether or not it is widespread with regard to funding from governments — including the U.S. government — or corporations the university puts itself at risk for potential conflicts of interest between appeasing funding sources and pursuing academic projects. That seems to be the problem, to me, and I think to those who are interviewed in the piece. Why isn’t that a genuine problem for academic freedom?

    • Hi Manyul, I have two thoughts in reply. First, I actually don’t think that, strictly speaking, this is “how soft power works.” Threatening to withdraw financial support — in effect, a kind of blackmail — is hard power. Soft power is when your values, goods, etc., attract people so that they “want what you want,” in Nye’s words.

      Still, that doesn’t answer the question of whether we should be concerned about such behavior in connection with the CIs. If there is evidence of it, we should be concerned, we should expose and criticize it, and if necessary encourage the insitutions in question to disband their CI. Same goes for Defense Department-supported East Asian Studies programs. I grant that subtle pressures may be hard to track and assess. But note that if the Chinese were to withdraw support from a CI that had sponsored a program they didn’t like, this would be a major blow to China’s soft power!

    • Steve, thanks; I guess you’re right about “soft power.” Now that I’ve re-looked at it, the Chronicle article can be misconstrued, because all of the expressed concerns from the people quoted are “hard power” concerns. (Soft power, if what you indicate is accurate, is something like Confucian virtue (de 德), and I’m not sure what would be objectionable about it.)

      I think the hard power worries are the real issue. I was hoping someone who had real information about a particular Confucius Institute agreement with the host university would chime in to say what safeguards exist — or are missing — in the agreement, for ensuring academic freedom.

  5. Hi all,

    In case anyone wants to follow up on the soft power issue, I note that certain Oxford journals currently have free access, including the following essay: Li Mingfeng, “China Debates Soft Power.” More generally, see this issue of the Chinese Journal of International Politics, “Rethinking China’s Rise“.

    Here is a summary of its conclusions:

    “This study arrives at several conclusions. First, Chinese decision makers and opinion leaders have paid close attention to the progress of their nation’s soft power. Second, although Chinese discourse largely conforms to Joseph S. Nye’s conceptual framework, it is not limited to its specific scope. Third, Chinese discourse, unlike Nye’s exclusive focus on the efficacy of soft power in achieving foreign policy goals, frequently refers to a domestic context, evincing a mission for domestic purposes, although the domestic context is not the primary focus of Chinese interlocutors. Fourth, soft power, as expounded by Chinese analysts, is still a weak link in the country’s pursuit of comprehensive national power. It is largely perceived as a tool for defensive purposes such as cultivating a better image of China to present to the outside world, correcting foreign misperceptions of China and fending off unwelcome Western cultural and political inroads into China. I argue on the basis of these analyses that the grand Chinese soft power strategy is still in its embryonic phase, despite the painstaking efforts of Chinese strategists to devise proposals. The lack of assertiveness in China’s soft power discourse reflects that China has few political values to offer to a world still dominated by Western philosophies, and reveals that China itself is still undergoing a profound social, economic and political transition” [p. 288]


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