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Two U.S. government bodies issue reports on Confucius Institutes

In two reports issued last week, the Government Accountability Office (a congressional watchdog agency) and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations voiced concerns about the presence of Confucius Institutes on American campuses. The reports were also discussed during a Feb. 28 hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations.

Recommendations in the bipartisan report issued by the Subcommittee on Investigations call on universities to prioritize expressive rights and transparency in their contacts, aligning with recommendations FIRE made earlier this year regarding international partnerships.  

Confucius Institutes, educational centers funded by the Chinese government that offer language and cultural programming at host schools around the world, have faced increased scrutiny in recent months. At least 10 universities have announced plans to shutter their institutes over the past year in light of allegations that the centers have been used to influence or censor discussion of topics deemed sensitive to the Chinese government.

Between January 2018 and February 2019, the GAO reviewed agreements between Hanban, the Chinese government office responsible for managing Confucius Institutes, and the nearly 100 American colleges and universities that host an institute. Concerningly, of the 90 agreements, 42 contained language “indicating that the document was confidential,” a condition that could inhibit student and faculty understanding of the way these partnerships may impact their campus. The GAO noted that “some schools have posted their agreements online in response to increased focus on Confucius Institutes or requests for the document.”

While Hanban provides the teaching materials and books used by a vast majority of institutes, the GAO did not find that these materials were used for credit courses at any of the 10 schools used as case studies in the report.  

In the 90 agreements reviewed, the GAO found just “[o]ne agreement not[ing] that nothing in the agreement shall be construed to limit the academic freedom of faculty or academic programs at the school.” The GAO also learned that some administrators and researchers they interviewed were concerned about speech suppression led by members of Confucius Institutes:

Several school officials, researchers, and others we interviewed expressed concerns that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit events or activities critical of China—including events at the Confucius Institute and elsewhere on campus. Several researchers stated that a school with a Confucius Institute could choose to avoid hosting events on certain topics elsewhere on campus, such as Taiwan, governance of Tibet, or the Tiananmen Square protests, so as to not offend its Chinese partners or out of consideration for the terms of the agreement. For example, one researcher referenced an incident at one school where the Confucius Institute Chinese director allegedly removed literature about Taiwan from another professor’s door, while another cited a reported incident at an academic conference where a Hanban representative tried to remove information on Taiwan from the program provided to conference attendees.

[ . . . ]

According to an official at a school that closed its Confucius Institute, Hanban refused to fund a faculty research proposal in environmental studies as it did not align with Hanban’s vision of Confucius Institute as an organizer and funder of Chinese cultural events, and Hanban wanted to limit institute activities to student events.

Fears about censorship were not unanimous, though. The GAO wrote: “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,” and further reported that “multiple school officials stated that Hanban has never rejected a proposal for an event at the Confucius Institute based on the topic.”

Finally, the GAO offered suggestions from administrators and researchers on how U.S. campuses could bulletproof their agreements with the institutes. Importantly, “school officials, researchers, and others [GAO] interviewed stated that schools should remove the confidentiality section of their agreements and make the agreements publicly available online.” Other suggestions in the report included:

  • A few school officials and others noted that Confucius Institute teachers should not teach credit-bearing courses, even if those courses use curriculum developed by the school’s language department.
  • One school administrator, who stated that his school’s Confucius Institute would never have a Chinese assistant director because the position suggests an excessive degree of Chinese influence, recommended that other schools remove the Chinese assistant director position from their institutes.
  • Officials from two case study schools and others [GAO] interviewed stated that schools should organize events through the institute specifically intended to address what some might perceive as a topic sensitive to Chinese interests to demonstrate that the school and institute were not subject to undue Chinese influence.

The Subcommittee on Investigations also issued a report on Feb. 28, echoing some of the issues raised in the GAO report and expressing other concerns about lack of compliance regarding visas and university gift reporting.

Most importantly, the Senate report argues that universities “should never, under any circumstances, compromise academic freedom” and that “[a]bsent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States.”

Sens. Rob Portman and Tom Carper, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Investigations, issued a statement addressing the key findings of the Senate report. Portman noted that “[t]his bipartisan report documents the stunning lack of transparency and reciprocity from China in how Confucius Institutes operate inside the United States,” and Carper wrote that he “hope[s] this report encourages schools hosting Confucius Institute to evaluate how they impact free speech and debate on campus and take steps to ensure academic freedom remains paramount.”

Some of the concerns Carper and Portman raise — that universities should reassess the agreements they have made with Confucius Institutes and address lack of transparency in those agreements — echo suggestions by those interviewed in the GAO report and directly track with the measures FIRE calls for in our “Commitment to Campus Free Expression at Home and Abroad,” announced in January.

FIRE’s commitment explicitly calls on universities to prioritize speech and academic freedom rights in all contracts and partnerships, and asks universities to make those agreements public so that community members are informed of their content. FIRE would be pleased to work with any university interested in adopting the “Home and Abroad” commitment.

Ultimately, any responses to alleged efforts by the Chinese government to impact debate on U.S. campuses must be carefully considered so that they do not harm freedom of expression or academic freedom — the rights they are intended to protect. As FIRE, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PEN America, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Defending Rights & Dissent explained in a letter last month to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, stronger vetting procedures that are reportedly under consideration for Chinese students intending to study at U.S. campuses, “includ[ing] checks of student phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media platforms,” would likely chill the speech of both Chinese and American students.

FIRE will continue to monitor reports regarding Confucius Institutes and their relationships with U.S. campuses.

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