University of Chicago Suspends Chinese Government-Backed Institute

Program criticized as a propaganda tool employed by China

Pro-democracy protesters gather in the early hours of the morning on the streets around the government headquarters
Pro-democracy protesters gather in the early hours of the morning on the streets around the government headquarters / AP

A prominent U.S. university has decided to suspend its relationship with a Chinese government-backed program that critics say is used by China to spread its propaganda abroad, as Beijing receives heightened scrutiny in the West over its response to mass protests in Hong Kong.

The University of Chicago said in a statement on Thursday that it would "suspend negotiations" for a "renewal of the agreement for a second term" of the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago (CIUC).

The university formed the CIUC in 2009 after reaching an agreement with Hanban, the Chinese government agency that oversees hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide.

"The University and Hanban have engaged in several months of good faith efforts and steady progress toward a new agreement," the statement said. "However, recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership."

The statement appears to refer to an article in the state-owned Jiefang Daily that was published on Sept. 19. After more than 100 Chicago faculty members raised concerns about the institute in an April petition, the article alleged that the director general of Hanban, Xu Lin, issued a challenge to the university’s president in a letter. "Should your college decide to withdraw, I’ll agree," the article quoted Xu as saying in the letter.

The daily then claimed that in response to Xu Lin’s challenge, the University of Chicago became "anxious" and decided to "continue to properly manage the Confucius Institute." A university spokesperson referred the Washington Free Beacon to its statement and declined to comment further.

University of Chicago faculty who criticized the institute said it gave the Chinese government too much influence over the teaching and curriculum of the university’s Chinese language and culture courses.

Marshall Sahlins, a professor emeritus in anthropology and social sciences at Chicago, wrote in an October 2013 article for the Nation that Hanban had an instrumental role in selecting Chinese-language teachers at the University, and input regarding approval and money for the projects of faculty members conducting research about China.

The CIUC provided grants to faculty and students for research, travel, and conferences. Presentations included, "From the critique of capital to the administration of capital: Marxism’s curious path in China," and "From Modern Opera to Model Opera: The Red Lantern and the Politics of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," among other studies of Chinese language and culture.

"Prominent [Confucius Institute] hosts should take the lead in reversing course, stressing that the issues involved are larger than their own particular interests: by hosting a Confucius Institute, they have become engaged in the political and propaganda efforts of a foreign government in a way that contradicts the values of free inquiry and human welfare to which they are otherwise committed," Sahlins wrote in the article.

Those in charge of the CIUC have denied that Beijing held sway over the program. Dali Yang, the director of the institute and a political science professor, said in an email that "the University of Chicago Confucius Institute does not offer Chinese language classes on its own" but through the university’s Chinese language program. He added that research proposals submitted to Hanban were vetted by university faculty.

"Yes, faculty members who request funds need to submit proposals as in most places," he said. "The proposals are reviewed and approved by an academic committee comprised of University of Chicago faculty members."

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday that Confucius Institutes—established a decade ago—do not "impose anything" on U.S. universities.

"The Confucius Institutes provide American universities with teachers, teaching materials and other support upon voluntary application of the U.S. side, never impose anything on others, and therefore are unlikely to threaten the academic freedom and integrity of universities," she said.

According to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, there were 353 institutes and 473 "Confucius Classrooms" in 104 countries as of September 2011. Li Changchun, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official, has called the institutes "an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up." Hanban maintains that the institutes are only designed to promote Chinese language and culture.

Confucius Institutes have sparked controversy at other universities. McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, eliminated its program in July 2013 after an instructor, Sonia Zhao, said she faced religious discrimination. Zhao told the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that she was forced to sign a contract guaranteeing that she would not practice Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that is banned in China.

Analysts have long said that the institutes are a "soft power" tool employed by China to expand its influence abroad. The New York Times reported earlier this month that China was one of the countries that donated previously undisclosed sums to U.S. think tanks in Washington to influence policymaking.

China has also come under criticism for its ruling in late August that nominees for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 must still be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee. The proposal has fueled mass protests in Hong Kong, where youth say it amounts to de facto control of their region by China despite previous promises of more autonomy. Police have arrested 78 people and used batons, pepper spray, and tear gas on demonstrators on Monday and throughout the weekend.