Confucius Institutes (Chinese: 孔子学院; pinyin: Kǒngzǐ Xuéyuàn) are public educational partnerships between colleges and universities in China and colleges and universities in other countries; the partnerships are funded and arranged in part by Hanban which is itself affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. The stated aim of the program is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges. The organization has been criticized due to concerns of rising Chinese influences in the countries in which it operates; however, many programs have renegotiated their contracts to protect the academic freedom of host universities.
The Confucius Institute program began in 2004 and is supported by Hanban (officially the Office of Chinese Language Council International), overseen by individual universities. The institutes operate in co-operation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the world, and financing is shared between Hanban and the host institutions. The related Confucius Classroom program partners with local secondary schools or school districts to provide teachers and instructional materials.
Officials from China have compared Confucius Institutes to language and culture promotion organizations such as Portugal’s Instituto Camões, Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française, Italy’s Società Dante Alighieri, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes and Germany’s Goethe-Institut—several of them named for an iconic cultural figure identified with that country, as Confucius is identified with China. Some commentators argue that, unlike these organizations, many Confucius Institutes operate directly on university campuses, thus giving rise to what they allege to be unique concerns related to academic freedom and political influence; however, outside of isolated incidents, any accusation of widespread interference of academic freedom has yet to be substantiated. On 13 August 2020, the United States Department of State designated the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in the U.S. as a “foreign mission” of China.
The first Confucius Institute (CI) opened on 21 November 2004 in Seoul, South Korea, after establishing a pilot institute in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in June 2004. The CI in South Korea is no longer active. The second Confucius Institute was opened on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park, also in November 2004. Hundreds more have opened since in dozens of countries around the world, with the highest concentration of institutes in the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
In April 2007, the first research-based Confucius Institute opened in Waseda University in Japan. In partnership with Peking University, the program promotes research activities of graduate students studying Chinese.
As of 2019, there are 530 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents. The Ministry of Education estimates that 100 million people overseas may be learning Chinese by 2010 and the program is expanding rapidly in order to keep up.
Hanban aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020.
The Confucius Institute is named after the noted Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC). Throughout the 20th century, Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders criticized and denounced Confucius as the personification of China’s “feudal” traditions, with anti-Confucianism ranging from the 1912 New Culture Movement to the 1973 Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius campaign during the Cultural Revolution. However, in recent decades, interest in pre-modern Chinese culture has grown in the country, and Confucius in particular has seen a resurgence in popularity. Outside of China, Confucius is a generally recognizable symbol of Chinese culture, removed from the negative associations of other prominent Chinese figures such as Chairman Mao Zedong.
“Confucius Institute” is a trademarked brand name, which according to a spokesman for the organisation, “Those who enjoy more brand names will enjoy higher popularity, reputation, more social influence, and will therefore be able to generate more support from local communities.” A 2011 crackdown protected “Confucius Institute” from preregistration infringement in Costa Rica.
A China Post article reported in 2014 that “Certainly, China would have made little headway if it had named these Mao Institutes, or even Deng Xiaoping Institutes. But by borrowing the name Confucius, it created a brand that was instantly recognized as a symbol of Chinese culture, radically different from the image of the Communist Party.”
Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Sydney, notes the irony that the CPC now lionizing Confucius had vilified him just four decades previously for his association with patriarchal, hierarchical, and conservative values.
Confucius Institutes (CIs) promote and teach Chinese culture and language around the world. CIs develop Chinese language courses, train teachers, hold the HSK Examination (Chinese proficiency test), host cultural and artistic presentations, and provide information about contemporary China. The director of the CI program, Xu Lin, stated that CIs were started to cater to the sudden uptick in interest of the Chinese language around the world. They also provide Chinese language teaching staff from Mainland China. As of 2011, there were 200 such teachers working in the United States. In the Middle East 14 institute, and the main purpose for the local population to participate in the institute activities are learning Chinese in order to find a job in the local market or to find a job in the growing Chinese market.
Hanban is a non-profit government organization, though it is connected with the Ministry of Education and has close ties to a number of senior Communist Party officials. The Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing establishes the guidelines which the separate Confucius Institutes worldwide follows. The headquarters is governed by a council with fifteen members, ten of whom are directors of overseas institutes. The institutes themselves are individually managed under the leadership of their own board of directors, which should include members of the host institution. The current chair of the Confucius Institute Headquarters council is Liu Yandong, a Chinese vice premier and member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo who formerly headed the United Front Work Department. Other leaders of the council are similarly drawn from the Communist Party and central government agencies, such as the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, and the State Council Information Office (also known as the Office of Overseas Propaganda). The council sets the agenda for the Confucius Institutes and makes changes to the bylaws while other tasks and ongoing management of the Confucius Institute Headquarters are handled by the professional executive leadership headed by the director-general.
The Chinese Government shares the burden of funding Confucius Institutes with host universities, and takes a hands-off approach to management. The institutes function independently within the guidelines established by Hanban and the Confucius Institute Headquarters. Each institute is responsible for drawing up and managing their own budget, which is subject to approval by the headquarters. The Confucius Institute Headquarters provides various restrictions on how their funds may be used, including earmarking funds for specific purposes. Institutes in the United States are generally provided with $100,000 annually from Hanban, with the local university required to match funding.
In addition to their local-partner university, Confucius Institutes operate in co-operation with a Chinese partner university. Many institutes are governed by a board which is composed of several members from the Chinese partner school, with the remaining members affiliated with the local-partner university. At most institutes, the director is appointed by the local partner university.
The curriculum of Confucius Institutes is based on the institute’s role as a language center. School officials, researchers, and other people interviewed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) offered mixed experiences in their autonomy over the curriculum. According to the GAO report, “officials from multiple case study schools noted that U.S. school faculty members make all decisions regarding conference themes, guest speakers, and topics for events at their institute.” Further, some schools were able to host conferences and programs that are critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At other schools, officials have raised concerned that the Confucius Institute espouses a sanitized view of Chinese society that avoids contentious topics like human rights abuses and Tibet, and they also express concerns regarding whether the Hanban would sponsor events that discuss views contrary to those of the CCP. At one school, the Confucius Institute Chinese director allegedly removed literature material about Taiwan. At another school, a Hanban representative attempted to exclude information on Taiwan from the program provided to attendees at a conference.
Criticism and controversies
In the short time-frame of their rapid expansion, the institutes have been the subject of much controversy. Criticisms of the institutes have included administrative concerns about finance, academic viability, legal issues, and relations with the Chinese partner university, as well as broader concerns about improper influence over teaching and research, industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese abroad, and undermining Taiwanese influence. There has also been organized opposition to the establishment of a Confucius Institute at University of Melbourne, University of Manitoba, Stockholm University, University of Chicago and many others. More significantly, some universities that hosted Confucius Institutes decided to terminate their contracts. These include Japan’s Osaka Sangyo University in 2010; Canada’s McMaster University and Université de Sherbrooke, and France’s University of Lyon in 2013; the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University, and the Toronto District School Board in 2014, the German Stuttgart Media University and University of Hohenheim in 2015, and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2019.
Controversy regarding Confucius Institutes in the US, Australian, and Canadian press includes criticism that unlike other governments’ language and culture promotion organizations, the Confucius Institutes operate within established universities, colleges, and secondary schools around the world, providing funding, teachers and educational materials. This has raised concerns over their influence on academic freedom, the possibility of industrial espionage, and concerns that the institutes present a selective and politicized view of China as a means of advancing the country’s soft power internationally.
Underlying such opposition is concern by professors that a Confucius Institute would interfere with academic freedom and be able to pressure the university to censor speech on topics the Communist Party of China objects to. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education asserts that there is little evidence of meddling from China, although the same article did go on to say the institutes were “distinct in the degree to which they were financed and managed by a foreign government.” After interviewing China scholars, journalists and CI directors, a writer for The Diplomat also found little support for the concern that CIs would serve as propaganda vehicles, though some of her sources did note that they would face constraints in their curriculum on matters such as Tibet and human rights. An article in The New York Times quotes Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, saying that the key issue is academic independence. “Once you have a Confucius Institute on campus, you have a second source of opinions and authority that is ultimately answerable to the Chinese Communist Party and which is not subject to scholarly review.”
In October 2013, University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins published an extensive investigative article criticizing the Confucius Institutes and the universities hosting them. Later, more than 100 faculty members signed a protest against the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago. In September 2014, the University of Chicago suspended its negotiation for renewal of the agreement with Hanban. Two months later, the Canadian Association of University Teachers urged Canadian universities and colleges to end ties with the Confucius Institute.
In June 2014, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement urging American universities to cease their collaboration with the Confucius Institute unless the universities can have unilateral control of the academia affairs, that the teachers in Confucius Institutes can have the same academic freedom enjoyed by other university faculty members, and that the agreements between universities and Confucius Institutes are available to the community. The AAUP statement was widely noticed by US media and prompted extensive further debate in the US.
Two months later, in August 2014, Xu Lin, Director-General of the Hanban and Chief Executive of the CIs worldwide, became embroiled in an incident in Braga, Portugal, when Xu ordered her staff to rip pages referring to Taiwanese academic institutions from the published program for the European Association for Chinese Studies conference in Braga, claiming the materials were “contrary to Chinese regulations”. When Roger Greatrex, president of the EACS, learned of this censorship, he ordered that 500 copies of the original program immediately be printed and distributed to participants. He later wrote, “The seizure of the materials in such an unauthorized manner, after the conference had already begun, was extremely injudicious, and has promoted a negative view of the Confucius Institute Headquarters”. The EACS letter of protest said this had been “the first occasion in the history of the EACS that its conference materials have been censored.” It concluded, “Such interference in the internal organization of the international conference of an independent and democratically organized non-profitable academic organization is totally unacceptable.” The Wall Street Journal described Xu’s attempted censorship as the “bullying approach to academic freedom”.
In September 2014, the University of Chicago closed their CI after pressure from faculty members, blaming Xu’s comments that her threatening letter and phone call forced the university to continue hosting the institute. The Business Spectator concludes that the Xu Lin’s hardline behavior highlights one of the biggest problems for Beijing’s charm offensive. “It still relies on officials like Xu, who still think and act like party ideologues who like to assert their authority and bully people into submission.” Less than a week later, Pennsylvania State University also cut ties with the Confucius Institute after coming to the conclusion that “its objectives were not in line with the Institute’s”.
In December 2014, Stockholm University, the first university in Europe to host a Confucius Institute, announced it was terminating the program. Press coverage of the Braga incident in the Swedish press was said to have influenced the decision. “Generally it is questionable to have, within the framework of the university, institutes that are financed by another country,” said the university’s chancellor.
In the same month, the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations held a hearing entitled “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?”. Chairman Chris Smith said, “U.S. colleges and universities should not be outsourcing academic control, faculty and student oversight or curriculum to a foreign government”, and called for a GAO study into agreements between American universities and China. On 5 December 2014, PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied the House testimony and said “We have assisted with supplying teachers and textbooks at the request of the U.S. side but have never interfered with academic freedom.”
Controversy continued in 2018 as U.S. Congress members from Texas wrote a letter to four universities in that state urging them to close their Confucius Institutes. Texas A&M did so shortly after receiving the letter. Throughout 2018 and 2019, all of the institutes in Florida were closed: the University of West Florida, the University of North Florida, the University of South Florida, and Miami Dade College.
A U.S. law passed in 2019 that prohibits universities hosting Confucius Institutes from receiving funding for Chinese language studies from the Department of Defense led to more closures of Confucius Institutes. Unable to obtain a waiver from the Department of Defense, Indiana University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Rhode Island, San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, Western Kentucky University, Arizona State University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and San Diego State University closed their programs in 2019. In 2020, the University of Maryland also announced the closure of its Confucius Institute, the oldest one in the U.S.
On 19 February 2019, Leiden University in The Netherlands promised to end its agreement with Confucius Institute in August 2019.
In 2020, Sweden ended agreements with all Confucius Institutes in the country. Management consultant Ross Feingold said the closure of the Confucius Institutes was the result of Sweden taking a much tougher view of China, as a result of Swedish national Gui Minhai being imprisoned for 10 years, and also comments by China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, who threatened Sweden during an interview with broadcaster Swedish PEN in November 2019 saying that “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we got shotguns.” over the decision to award Gui Minhai with the Tucholsky Prize, the ambassador later clarified saying that China would impose trade restrictions on Sweden for this award. The embassy has systematically worked to influence the reporting on China by Swedish journalists.
On 13 August 2020, U.S. Department of State designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the PRC.
The Confucius Institute also has been alleged to have non-academic goals. Li Changchun, the 5th-highest-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was quoted in The Economist saying that the Confucius Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”. The statement has been seized upon by critics as evidence of a politicized mission. Many foreign scholars have characterized the CI program as an exercise in soft power, expanding China’s economic, cultural, and diplomatic reach through the promotion of Chinese language and culture, while others have suggested a possible role in intelligence collection although these claims have never been substantiated. The soft power goals also include assuaging concerns of a “China threat” in the context of the country’s increasingly powerful economy and military.
Retired British diplomat and China expert Roger Garside concludes in his submission to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission that “academic freedom is inherently compromised by permitting a state agency controlled by the Communist Party of China to establish a teaching operation in any school or university.”
While Chinese authorities have been cautious not to have CIs act as direct promoters of the party’s political viewpoints, a few critics suggest that the Confucius Institutes function in this way. Officials say that one important goal of the institutes is to influence other countries’ understanding of China. Peng Ming-min, a Taiwan independence activist and politician, claims that colleges and universities where a Confucius Institute is established have to sign a contract in which they declare their support for Beijing’s “One China” policy. As a result, both Taiwan and Tibet become taboo at the institutes. However, this claim is in dispute. Michael Nylan, professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley, stated that CIs have become less heavy-handed in their demands, and have learnt from “early missteps”, such as insisting that universities adopt a policy that Taiwan is part of China. Nylan’s survey of faculty and administrators at fifteen universities with Confucius Institutes revealed two reports that institutes had exerted pressure to block guest speakers, but both events went ahead anyway.
The CI’s soft power goals are seen as an attempt by the PRC to modernize away from Soviet-influenced propaganda of the Maoist era. Other initiatives include Chinese contemporary art exhibitions, television programs, concerts by popular singers, translations of Chinese literature, and the expansion of state-run news channels such as Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television.
The Hanban website stated that Chinese language instructors should be “aged between 22 to 60, physical and mental healthy, no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations, and no criminal record.”
Human rights lawyer Clive Ansley has argued that the part of the hiring policy that discriminates against Falun Gong believers is in contravention of anti-discrimination laws and human rights codes. Marci Hamilton, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Yeshiva University, called this policy “unethical and illegal in the free world.”
In 2013, McMaster University in Canada closed its Confucius Institute due to hiring issues over Falun Gong.
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