In 2004, the Confucius Institute (CI) program was established with a mission to spread knowledge of Chinese language and culture around the world. Along with rising numbers of people interested in studying the language, these academic centers have hired and trained teachers, designed curriculum for teaching Chinese and educated people worldwide about fast-growing China. The institutes have also sought to promote friendly international relations and trade.
Sponsored by the Chinese government as part of the Ministry of Education, these nonprofit public institutes are run in universities, colleges, and secondary schools. The first campus opened in Seoul, South Korea, and today there are over 350 Confucius Institutes in dozens of nations. Most of these educational centers are located in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The University of Chicago, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Stanford University, and Purdue University are just a few of the schools in partnership with Confucius Institute.
However, this growing number of institutes has also met with backlash.
China’s Confucius Institutes have been known to spread Communist propaganda through cultural exchanges at host schools. The United States and other nations in the West have criticized these government-run institutes for limiting academic freedom, keeping tabs on Chinese students studying abroad, and seeking to spread the country’s own viewpoints on controversial topics. Issues that avoid discussion include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s relations with Tibet and Taiwan. There have also been questions regarding Confucius Institute’s quality of teachers and academics.
Just last month, the American Association of University Professors requested that universities partnered with Confucius Institutes either terminate or reexamine their relations with these branches of the Chinese government. They argue that by allowing the Chinese government to control their methods of teaching, these universities in the United States have risked losing their integrity. Instead of being limited by these institutes’ narrow curriculum, restricted from meaningful debates, and controlled by tight staff hiring procedures, American institutions should fight for their belief in academic freedom in all teachings and research. If the Confucius Institute continues to clash with this notion of academic freedom, then schools should sever ties with the program.
There have been happenings regarding those accusations. In 2012, former Confucius Institute instructor Sonia Zhao reported discrimination against her because of her faith in Falun Gong. Zhao asserted how her employment contract explicitly prevented her from associating with the spiritual discipline, which is regarded as a threat by the Chinese Communist Party. The school where she worked, McMaster University in Canada, sided with Zhao and declined to renew its contract with Confucius Institute the following year. When the Dalai Lama planned to speak at North Carolina State University in 2009, the occasion drew opposition from Confucius Institute, and the university ended up cancelling the event.
In the United States and other nations where academic freedom is crucial, Confucius Institute’s restrictions may not be accepted for much longer. With the support of many American universities at risk, perhaps it is time for something to be changed.