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China U.

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Harper Library, University of Chicago

For years, only smaller American colleges and universities—as well as the Chicago Public School system—struck deals with Confucius Institutes. But lately, major research universities like Michigan, UCLA, Columbia, Stanford and Chicago have joined the CI program. (An exception is the University of Pennsylvania, which has rebuffed efforts by Hanban to establish a Confucius Institute there.) As one would expect, these schools got sweeter deals than the less prestigious early adopters. Still, by paying $1 million over five years to Columbia and an initial $200,000 to the University of Chicago, the Chinese got a bargain in advertising, if nothing else. It is difficult to understand why Chicago and Columbia settled for such modest sums, except possibly as loss leaders on the important overseas academic centers they are establishing in Beijing.

About the Author

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

Stanford upstaged both universities by negotiating a payment of $4 million from Hanban: $1 million for conferences, $1 million for graduate fellowships, and $2 million for an endowed professorship. One Stanford professor pointed out that it was “convenient for everyone concerned” that the designated professorship be assigned to the field of classical Chinese poetry, “something that isn’t controversial in any contemporary political way.” The Stanford dean who negotiated the deal, Richard Saller, also warded off a Chinese suggestion that the institute refrain from discussing Tibet. Saller, who is a highly regarded scholar of classical Rome, thereupon became the head of Stanford’s Confucius Institute, despite the stipulation in the Hanban guidelines that CI directors should “have in-depth comprehension of Chinese current national issues.” Yet in his own way, Saller knew enough about Chinese current national issues to grasp that Hanban was willing to treat Stanford generously and circumspectly because it was keen to use the participation of a prestigious university for its own larger purposes; its relationship with Stanford was too precious to jeopardize. Hanban officials “are very interested in getting a foothold at Stanford,” Saller said. He suggested it was because the Chinese would like to create a Stanford University and Silicon Valley of their own.

Even if Saller is correct, the affiliation of Stanford and its equals with Confucius Institutes has other advantages for the Chinese government: namely, it encourages other schools to sign up. According to The GW Hatchet, the student newspaper of George Washington University, after fecklessly comparing Confucius Institutes to the British Council, which has no university presence, the dean who negotiated the installation of a CI at George Washington mentioned solidarity with other universities. As she told the Hatchet, “I think we saw other top universities taking on Confucius Institutes, and that increased our comfort level.” She cited Chicago as an example. 

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The establishment of a Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago was marked, as might be expected, by “free enterprise” in both its inception and academic content. Henry Paulson recently contibuted several million dollars for an institute in his name, housed in its own building on a prime piece of real estate near the main campus. Currently under renovation adjacent to the campus is a large church complex destined to become the new home of the famous Chicago Economics Department and the Becker Friedman Institute, thus posing to the architects the difficult challenge of changing the functional arrangement of the building while preserving its religious character. The Confucius Institute, aside from providing language teachers from China, has likewise been funding considerable research on aspects of Chinese economic development—in fact, a lot more economics than language teaching. As with other institutes at Chicago, the origin of its CI is identified with one man, the political scientist Dali Yang, who at the time he developed the proposal for the Confucius Institute was director of the Center for East Asian Studies. Over the course of about a year, Yang was able to usher the proposal through negotiations with Chinese officials, Chicago administrators and faculty colleagues.

Yang didn’t just build it by himself; his enterprise succeeded because it engaged larger institutional conditions that gave it persuasive force and effective backing. On the one hand, there was the ready complicity of the university administration, which like many others is given to an unseemly avidity for gelt, glitz and glory. The University of Chicago takes a lot of pride in its traditions. (By Thorstein Veblen’s account in The Higher Learning in America [1918], a certain competitive interest in institutional grandeur and public esteem on the part of the captains of erudition was already in place at the beginning of the twentieth century.) On the other hand, Yang knew how to adapt to Hanban’s new emphasis on “core research,” and in particular the apparent fascination on the Chinese side with the Chicago School of economics. According to Ted Foss, the Center for East Asian Studies is frequently besieged by calls from the Chinese Consulate asking to arrange a photo op with Gary Becker for a delegation of visiting dignitaries.

At Chicago, Hanban got what it wished for: not only a heavy preponderance of research proposals concerned with Chinese economic development, but an annual University of Chicago–Renmin Symposium on Family and Labor Economics, now in its fourth year. The partner institution of CIs in more than a dozen schools besides Chicago, Renmin has, more than any other Chinese university, a Janus-like reputation. In Chicago, it is vaunted as the leading Chinese university in the social sciences and humanities, whereas in China it is popularly known as the party’s university, as it was founded by the Communist Party and is a major forcing house for government cadres. The CI at Chicago presents the risible spectacle of Chinese Communists using Confucius’ name to channel Gary Becker’s über-capitalist ideology of rational choice.

The still-greater contradiction is that the Confucius Institute engaged the university’s cherished traditions of laissez-faire, both as a matter of academic freedom and as an economic philosophy, in a global project designed to increase the political influence of the People’s Republic of China. This antithetical combination of free enterprise and government constraint was already present in April 2008, when Dali Yang and Ted Foss consulted a Chinese education consul in Chicago on the general requirements for a Confucius Institute. By the testimonies of these two gentlemen—including a historical sketch of the Chicago CI written by Yang—the process of consultation that followed involved an early “heads-up” to the deans of humanities and the social sciences. Later, Yang presented the proposal for a Chicago CI to the China scholars of the Center for East Asian Studies, who after some discussion unanimously approved its establishment. This was the only group that ever had a vote (the Korea and Japan scholars were left out of the loop), and they were among the only university faculty members who knew anything about the institute before it was inaugurated.

Later, in 2010, after news of the deal became public, 174 Chicago faculty members signed a petition protesting the administration’s ill-advised acceptance of a Confucius Institute without the consent of a governing body that properly represented them. According to Dali Yang’s history, the executive committee of the Center for East Asian Studies had discussed the CI in the year leading up to its founding, but at least one member of this small committee—Bruce Cumings, the eminent historian of Korea—did not learn of the CI’s existence until a good six months after the deal had been signed and sealed with Beijing. (The executive committee of the center meets very infrequently, according to Foss, even less than once a year.) Otherwise, the only other consultation was a meeting late in the day with a “small working group of faculty, deans, and administrators.” In September 2009, the CI proposal was submitted to Hanban. On September 29, 2009, the agreement to establish a Confucius Institute was signed by a vice president of the university and the executive director of the Hanban headquarters. On June 1, 2010, the institute was formally opened, with the president of the University of Chicago and Hanban dignitaries in attendance at the festivities.

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