What Does Confucius Say about Academic Freedom?


As the Confucius Institute brand grows world-wide, some universities are reevaluating their relations with the Chinese government-funded culture and language centers. While controversies have arisen since the launch of the People’s Republic of China’s project in 2004, the Confucius Institute and Hanban, the government agency that funds and runs the Institute, has come under fire amidst accusations of censorship and stifling academic freedom.

Last year University of Chicago professor, Marshall Sahlins, published an article criticizing his institution’s relationship with the Confucius Institute, expressing concern over Hanban’s control over curricula and materials, Hanban’s right to legally challenge any unauthorized activity at Confucius Institutes, and the Confucius Institute’s initiative to hold events that “put the PRC in a good light” while censoring any mention of China’s political controversies. Since then, other professors have written editorials on the pitfalls and benefits of the Confucius Institutes growing presence at North American universities.  Edward A. McCord of George Washington University wrote that there is little evidence that Confucius Institutes restrain academic freedom on U.S. campuses, pointing out that anecdotal incidences of censorship are few. He goes on to say that it would restrain academic freedom not to allow the Chinese point of view to be expressed on U.S. campuses on controversial topics such as Tibet and Taiwan.

Other supporters of the Confucius presence on university campuses point to the education funding crisis as the most compelling reason to have Confucius Institutes: Hanban and the Institutes are offering resources to teach the Chinese language, and in the humanities, funding is increasingly precarious. Opponents of the Confucius Institute express concern over the centers’ role in increasing China’s “soft power” in the world, and as a tool for deploying pro-China propaganda. Thousands have signed petitions in Toronto hoping to prevent a contract between the Toronto District School Board and the Confucius Institute.

Outside of the classroom, Hanban allegedly censored a conference program at the XX Conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies in Portugal, physically ripping out an advertisement from conference cosponsor, the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, a Taiwanese institution.

In response to these incidents, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently released a report, “On Partnerships with Foreign Government: The Case of Confucius Institutes,” explaining that, “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” The AAUP points out that the difference between the Confucius Institute and other cultural centers sponsored by foreign governments, such as the British Council, the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Française, is that the Confucius Institutes are installed on campus and have special agreements with universities, and sometimes offer classes that count for credit in departments that offer Chinese language instruction, whereas the other institutes are not on college campuses. The AAUP criticizes this close relationship between the roughly 100 North American universities and Confucius Institutes, arguing that, “Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.” The Canadian Association of University Professors issued an even more severe report last winter urging Canadian universities to cut off all ties from Hanban and the Confucius Institutes.

Despite organized opposition, North American universities have yet to terminate contracts with their Confucius Institutes. The language courses remain popular with students and school districts. Meanwhile, Hanban continues to expand the project with new centers opening in on the African continent and in Latin America.

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