University of Maryland to End Beijing-Funded Program That Chills Campus Speech, Academic Freedom

January 21, 2020 Updated: January 23, 2020

The University of Maryland (UMD) recently announced it would close its Confucius Institute (CI), joining the long and growing list of American universities that sever their ties with the much-criticized Chinese government-funded education program around the globe.

In a campus-wide email, UMD President Wallace Loh wrote that it was no longer possible for the school’s Confucius Institute to continue to operate after the 2019-2020 school year, citing a federal funding bill that essentially made American universities choose between continuing their CIs or accepting money from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The legislation, formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, prohibited American universities that host Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institutes from also receiving Pentagon funding for language programs.

“After evaluating the impact of this legislation on UMD, it became evident that we can no longer host Confucius Institute at Maryland,” wrote Loh, according to American University Radio. “We have notified CI Headquarters in Beijing that we are ending our agreement.”

In 2004, the UMD became the first university in the United States to establish a Confucius Institute. The number of CIs across the country steadily increased over time, growing to roughly 100 at its peak. The structure of such institutes varies, but they are usually headed by a director, who is typically a faculty or staff member from the host university, and a Chinese co-director, who reports directly to Beijing and supervises Chinese teaching staff. Chinese Ministry of Education generally provides startup and annual funding, recruits language teachers from China, and provides teaching materials and curricula.

A program designed to expand the communist regime’s oversea influences, the Confucius Institute has earned growing notoriety over the recent years. In September 2014, the University of Chicago declined to renew the contract with its CI, following a petition signed by more than one hundred faculty members, describing the CI as “an academically and politically ambiguous initiative” that sought to advance foreign interest at the expanse of the host university’s academic independence. In June of that year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called on American universities to shut down their CIs, accusing them of advancing a state agenda “in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”

In February 2019, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations exposed Confucius Institutes’ subversive activities in a report (pdf), expressing concerns over transparency and censorship. The Subcommittee stated that topics deemed “controversial” by the Chinese regime, including the independence of Taiwan or the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, were off-limits in American schools because of the presence of CIs.

“Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom,” read the report. “The Chinese teachers sign contracts with the Chinese government pledging they will not damage the national interests of China. Such limitations attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics.”