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China U. | The Nation

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China U.

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Harper Library, University of Chicago

One impediment to understanding the operations of the Confucius Institutes is that the model agreement establishing them, ratified by one or two representatives of the host university, is secret. The agreement includes a nondisclosure clause, which reads as follows (as translated from the Chinese part of the bilingual text): “The two parties to the agreement will regard this agreement as a secret document, and without written approval from the other party, no party shall ever publicize, reveal, or make public, or allow other persons to publicize, reveal, or make public materials or information obtained or learned concerning the other party, except if publicizing, revealing, or making it public is necessary for one party to the agreement to carry out its duties under the agreement.”

About the Author

Marshall Sahlins
Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of...

Subject to nondisclosure are the articles of the model agreement, most notably Article 5, which requires that Confucius Institute activities conform to the customs, laws and regulations of China as well as those of the host institution’s country. How would that be possible in, say, the United States? Hanban operates under Chinese laws that criminalize forms of political speech and systems of belief that are protected in the United States by the First Amendment, making it likely that by adhering to Article 5, American universities would be complicit in discriminatory hiring or violations of freedom of speech. And because the constitution of the Confucius Institutes stipulates that it and its bylaws are “applicable to all Confucius Institutes,” the officers of host universities must accept the Chinese control of academic work in their institutions and agree to keep this arrangement secret. Is this even legal?

Although there appears to be no statement of the specific “soft power” aims of the Confucius Institute program in its governing texts, there is a seemingly innocuous clause that amounts to a Trojan horse. In laying down a certain mandatory rule of language instruction, it effectively stipulates that students will acquire their knowledge of China only in ways acceptable to the Chinese state. The tenth and last of the “General Principles” in the constitution and bylaws (Chapter 1) states: “The Confucius Institutes conduct Chinese language instructions in Mandarin using Standard Chinese Characters.” What is here misleadingly called “Standard Chinese Characters” is the simplified script officially promulgated by the PRC as a more easily learned alternative to the traditional characters in which everything was written in China for thousands of years, and in which much that is not to the liking of the regime continues to be written in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the many other Chinese communities beyond Beijing’s direct control.

In a richly detailed exposé of the politics of the mandatory language rule, Michael Churchman has observed that instruction exclusively in Standard Chinese Characters would create a global distribution of scholars only semi-literate in Chinese. Native Chinese speakers with knowledge of the relevant context and some prior exposure to the traditional script may be more or less capable of deciphering it, but not foreign students who learn the language at college age. Unable to read the classics except in versions translated and interpreted in the PRC, cut off from the dissident and popular literature of other Chinese communities, students in CI courses cannot even access “the large and growing corpus of material on Communist Party history, infighting, and factionalism written by mainlanders but published exclusively in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” Churchman argues. Rather, they are subject to the same policies of language standardization (Mandarin) and literacy (simplified characters) by which the regime seeks to control what can and cannot be discussed in China.

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Many reputable and informed scholars of China have observed that the Confucius Institutes are marked by the same “no-go zones” that Beijing enforces on China’s public sphere. In an interview reported in The New York Times, June Teufel Dreyer, who teaches Chinese government and foreign policy at Miami University, said: “You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama—or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership—these are all off limits.” The Confucius Institutes at North Carolina State University and the University of Sydney actively attempted to prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking. At Sydney, he had to speak off-campus, and the CI sponsored a lecture by a Chinese academic who had previously claimed that Tibet was always part of China, notwithstanding that it was mired in feudal darkness and serfdom until the Chinese democratic reforms of 1959. The Confucius Institute at Waterloo University mobilized its students to defend the Chinese repression of a Tibetan uprising, and McMaster University and Tel Aviv University ran into difficulties with the legal authorities because of the anti–Falun Gong activities of their Confucius Institutes. Other taboo subjects include the Tiananmen massacre, blacklisted authors, human rights, the jailing of dissidents, the democracy movement, currency manipulation, environmental pollution and the Uighur autonomy movement in Xinjiang. Quite recently, Chinese government leaders explicitly banned the discussion of seven subjects in Chinese university classrooms, including universal values, freedom of the press and the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party; this was part of a directive to local officials to “understand the dangers posed by views and theories advocated by the West.” It stands to reason that these subjects will also not be matters of free inquiry in CIs.

More than one CI director has stated that his institute is free to discuss anything it wants to; the only problem seems to be with the things they don’t want to discuss. “We don’t know anything about the contract that [Hanban officials] force their teachers to sign,” said Glenn Cartwright, principal of Waterloo’s Renison University College, which houses the institute. “I’m sure they have some conditions, but whether we can dictate what those conditions can be is another story.” Human rights are not discussed in the Confucius Institute of the British Columbia Institute of Technology because that isn’t part of its mandate. According to director Jim Reichert, “our function is really focused on cultural awareness, business development, those sorts of pragmatic  things.” Even at liberal arts universities like Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, the deputy director of the CI told a newspaper in 2012, Confucius Institutes may not be the correct venues for debates on Tibet and other sensitive issues; such topics were better left to Sinology departments. 

Elite universities resort to the same cop-out when justifying CI restraints on the free exchange of ideas. Commenting on the possibility of Chicago’s CI discussing Tibetan independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre or Falun Gong, Ted Foss told me: “I think there’s a certain amount of self-censorship. And thank goodness we have money for the Center for East Asian Studies; we can go there for these kinds of projects. Our mandate for the Confucius Institute here is to look at business and economy in modern China.” That mandate, as he and others have allowed, has provoked some “pushback” from Hanban about research subjects that the Chicago CI should support. Hanban officials ask if “we are really trying to fund [projects on] tenth-century art, because the agreement was [that] we would concentrate on modern China.” Regarding “money for grants,” Foss said in another context, “there hasn’t been any direct interference, but as I say, there’s a certain amount of self-censorship…. What I’m happy about is that we’re not having a lot of programming forced down our throats; because we get these calls for dance groups or whatever coming through town, and we have been able to say no…. But some of the other CIs, basically they’re told, ‘Do this programming.’”

What Foss did think had been “dumped on” Chicago’s CI was its deputy director, who hails from Chicago’s partner institution, Renmin University in Beijing. An expert on the European Union, she had been assigned no teaching or other duties at Chicago. “She’s basically the eyes of Hanban,” Foss says. It puts him in mind of “any department, any academic department in China. You’ve got the chair of the department, and you’ve got the party head; and it drives my academic friends mad, but still you’ve got the guy or girl who is to report” to Beijing. At every level—from the Politburo authority over the Hanban headquarters to the deputy director from Renmin reporting on the Chicago CI, with its echo of the party official monitoring a Chinese university department—there is a repetition of the dualism of the party state, in which the administrative entity is subject to surveillance and control by the party. It should be incumbent on the higher administrators at Chicago and other host institutions to make themselves familiar with such unorthodox arrangements—or so you would think. You would be surprised.

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