American Professors Warn Against China’s Confucius Institutes

A second major North American academic body has cautioned universities against engaging with Confucius Institutes, because they violate academic freedom and advance the goals of the Chinese state.

The American Association of University Professors published an item on its website recently, setting out its thinking on the ostensible language-learning centers established in universities, called Confucius Institutes.

“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom. Their academic activities are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China,” the statement read. 

The bodies demand “unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China,” the statement said. Particularly, it continued: “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”

AAUP’s guidance on Confucius Institutes follows a strong statement by the Canadian Association of University Teachers last December, which called on schools to sever their ties with the agencies. 

The Canadian guidance appeared to be catalyzed by an embarrassing contretemps at McMaster University in Ontario in 2012, when a complaint was filed against it with the state’s Human Rights Tribunal. 

Sonia Zhao, a former teaching assistant at the university’s Confucius Institute, said that she had been forced to hide her practice of Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual practice persecuted in China. 

Hanban, the official Chinese state agency that manages Confucius Institutes, used to maintain on its website an explicit prohibition against practitioners of Falun Gong being allowed to teach at the centers. Falun Gong has been targeted for extralegal political persecution in China since 1999. 

McMaster later stated that its relationship with the Confucius Institute was inconsistent with the university’s anti-discrimination policies. There is now no institute there.

AAUP says that if universities wish to continue their associations with Confucius Institutes, they ought to renegotiate the secretive contracts to enforce compliance with American norms of academic freedom and freedom of expression. This would include handing to local universities unilateral control over the Institutes’ hiring, teaching, and curricula, and making public the agreement between Hanban and the universities.