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China U. | The Nation

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China U.

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Harper Library, University of Chicago

Confucius Institutes appear to have met more serious resistance in Canada and elsewhere than in the United States, where there are more CIs in colleges and universities—over eighty—than anywhere else. (Second to the United States are Korea and Russia, with at least seventeen each; Canada has eleven.) One reason is that CIs can operate differently in the United States when it is to their strategic advantage to do so. Everything suggests that as a means of increasing China’s own soft power in the camp of its greatest competitor for world supremacy, Beijing is willing to be flexible and accommodating in negotiations with certain American universities. Other institutions may reject Confucius Institutes out of fear of Chinese influence, but, says the curriculum coordinator of the CI at the University of Iowa, “as far as my experience with it, it would be a fear that’s not well grounded.”

About the Author

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

The Iowa administrators have no complaints about their Confucius Institute; in particular, they have none about Chinese hiring practices—because these practices don’t exist there. Officials at Iowa, having heard about the Falun Gong fiasco at McMaster, demanded contractual measures to avoid a similar occurrence and Hanban acquiesced, allowing Iowa to hire all employees internally with no interference. A McMaster administrator who was involved in the Zhao case said that its “contract with Hanban did not have the same stipulations.” After the Zhao case broke, McMaster attempted to renegotiate its agreement with Hanban with a view toward modifying the hiring rule; unlike Iowa, however, it was unable to persuade Beijing. But then, as a large American public university, Iowa is more favorably positioned to win concessions from Hanban. While questions may remain about how the Chinese teachers there are selected, how courses are taught and in what Chinese script, it is clear that Hanban does learn from its mistakes.

Or perhaps its “loose rein policy” in the United States is an adaptation of the empire’s form of indirect rule over the non-Chinese peoples of its borderlands that began in the Tang Dynasty, if not earlier. In those bad old imperial days, it was known as “using barbarians to rule barbarians.” Similarly, the emphasis by Chinese authorities on Confucius Institutes as a component of their politics of cultural conquest has more than one resonance with the traditional imperial strategy of transforming non-Chinese others by bringing them into contact with the dazzling splendor and pacifying virtue of the Celestial Emperor. A beautiful and peaceful China, harmonious and generous: these are major themes of Confucius Institutes.

Another reason Hanban is willing to accommodate some American universities is that their interests are different in scale and character. As an instrument of the Chinese government, Hanban wants to spread the influence of the Chinese state worldwide, particularly in strategically consequential regions, and above all in the United States. The apparent loss Hanban suffers by making a concession may be a long-term gain for a global program. By contrast, American universities are concerned only with their parochial welfare as academic institutions. They are thus inclined to ignore or dismiss the unsavory political aspects of Confucius Institutes—which is to say, the larger implications of their own participation—so long as they get a good deal. Then again, given these private interests, American universities have other good reasons for refraining from objecting to the CI program. Directly or indirectly, but ever-increasingly, American institutions of higher learning are heavily dependent on Chinese money.

As of the academic year 2012–13, there were 2,062 students from China at the University of Iowa. In the university’s business school, 21 percent of the students are Chinese, an increase from 8 percent in 2009. Chinese students account for more than half of the international student population campus-wide, and more than 80 percent of the approximately 500 foreign students in the business school. Nor is Iowa unique in these respects. The number of students from the PRC attending American universities has grown dramatically in the past few years. In the academic year 2011–12, there were 194,029 such students, most of whom pay full tuition, accounting for over 25 percent of all foreign students—nearly twice as many as the country with the next-highest number, India. The number of students from mainland China grew from 98,235 in 2008–09 to 127,628 in 2009–10 and 157,558 in 2010–11. Nor are PRC students the only source of Chinese largesse for US educational institutions. There are the CIs themselves, which endow most affiliated universities with an initial fee of $100,000 or $150,000 and annual payments along the same lines for the duration of the contract, as well as free instructors, textbooks and course materials, a number of scholarships for study in China, and upscale, wine-and-dine junkets to China for American administrators. These are not negligible perquisites, especially for smaller colleges, and they are all the more desirable because of the 47 percent decline in US government funding for language training and area studies programs in recent years.

Moreover, for publicly financed state universities, there may be another indirect but important dependence on China, insofar as their states have significant business relations with the People’s Republic that it would not be wise to endanger with complaints about academic freedom or invitations to the Dalai Lama. In 2009, when North Carolina State University—at which a CI had been established two years earlier—peremptorily canceled a scheduled visit of the Dalai Lama because, the president said, there had not been sufficient time to prepare for so august a guest, the provost, Warwick Arden, allowed that there were other considerations. “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications,” he said. “Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.” The director of the North Carolina State Confucius Institute told the provost that a visit by the Dalai Lama could disrupt “some strong relationships we were developing with China.” A Confucius Institute, Arden commented, presents an “opportunity for subtle pressure and conflict.”

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