Confucius Institute draws criticism from Congress, community

The Confucius Institute, located on Packard Avenue, photographed on Mar. 27, 2018. Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily

Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) urged Tufts to disassociate with the Confucius Institute, an educational collaboration between the university and Beijing Normal University (BNU), in a letter sent to 40 institutions in Greater Boston earlier this month. 

Confucius Institutes are overseen by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban, and are focused on Chinese language and culture education. Tufts’ Confucius Institute was launched in June 2015offering educational services such as tutoring and non-credit courses as well as cultural programming to the Tufts community

Moulton writes that these institutes, which are partially funded by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, undermine human rights by shaping the perception of the Chinese government on issues such as Tibetan independence, China’s relationship with Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“The Chinese government has been clear in its goal and purpose for creating and expanding Confucius Institutes throughout the country, namely to distort academic discourse on China, threaten and silence defenders of human rights, and create a climate intolerant of dissent or open discussion,” he wrote in the letter.

According to Tufts Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins, the university’s agreement with BNU is up for renewal in June 2019, before which a committee will review the existing relationship with the Institute. He added that the university will discuss Moulton’s concerns moving forward. Mingquan Wang, director of the Confucius Institute at Tufts and Chinese Program language coordinator, referred all questions about the Institute to Collins.

“We have received Congressman Moulton’s letter and look forward to continuing a dialogue with him,” Collins told the Daily in an email.

Dean of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, who sits on the board of the Institute, feels that the Confucius Institute’s programming enriches language and cultural understanding within the Tufts community, but he emphasized the board’s attention to these criticisms.

“We take seriously the concerns that have been raised by members of Congress and others,” he told the Daily in an email.

According to Peter Billerbeck, Moulton’s defense and foreign policy advisor, the Tufts leadership has been receptive to discussions with Moulton’s office about these concerns. 

“We have a good, positive channel of communication open with them,” he said. “They’ve been very open and transparent about what their process is.”

Moulton’s letter falls in line with other recent condemnations of the Institute, including criticism earlier this year from Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), as well as comments from groups including the American Association of University Professors and the National Association of Scholars.

Kathleen Hamill, a human rights lawyer and visiting assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, agreed that the Institute undermines human rights through its direct affiliation with Hanban. She also noted that the terms of Tufts’ agreement with the Institute are unclear.

“With Confucius Institute teachers, curriculum, and teaching materials coming from, and being paid for by, the Chinese government, it is almost certain that important human rights and political issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre are being censored and distorted,” she told the Daily in an email.

Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, an organization that advocates for Tibetan rights and freedoms, has been active in campaigns against Confucius Institutes at universities including Tufts and the University of Massachusetts, BostonTethong is working alongside a coalition of Tufts students, faculty and alumni, including Hamill, on a campaign against the Institute’s presence on the basis of human rights suppression. Campaign efforts will include sending University President Anthony Monaco a letter, which she hopes will better inform university leadership and the community at large about the institute.

“Oftentimes the relevant administrators and academic community … don’t know the whole story on Confucius Institutes,” she said. “They don’t know how much it is a part of China’s political plan.”

Tethong said she hopes the letter will open up dialogue between administrators and the community on this issue. She added that co-signers hope to see the terms of the contract between the university and BNU, with the goal of increasing transparency. She cited a recent case where her coalition was able to access the UMass Boston’s contract with BNU from a public records request.

“In most cases, we see the [partnering] university come to really shocking terms, like agreeing to follow laws and regulations of China here in the operation of the [Confucius Institute] and essentially agreeing to cede all academic authority to Beijing, the Confucius headquarters, in the operation of the Confucius Institutes,” she said. 

Senior Tenzin Chokki, a student who identifies as Tibetan, noted her personal discomfort and fear seeing the Confucius Institute’s sign on campus, as it signifies the presence of the Chinese government. 

“The fact that I am able to speak openly about this topic is a feature of American democracy. Such a discussion is very less likely to happen if this were in China,” she told the Daily in an email. “Students participating with [the Confucius Institute] should thus realize in their direct or indirect complacency in letting the Chinese government quietly be present in our educational environment.”

Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, which provides support to institutions based in the United States, said that many of these criticisms are unfounded. He emphasized that the coordination of Confucius Institute programming is at the discretion of host universities.

The Headquarters provides the grants to support this joint effort, nothing else,” he said. “It’s really up to the host institutions to decide and determine what kinds of programs, what type of setting, what type of governance and strategy.”

He emphasized that the Confucius Institutes’ motives are purely educational and do not aim to influence public perception.  

“We do not advocate for public opinion or public voice, and we don’t have any intention to influence the legislative action,” he said.

Junior Noah Smith has utilized the tutoring service offered by the Confucius Institute at Tufts and elsewhere. He believes that access to language and culture directly from Chinese people is essential for Chinese education. 

“Taking issue with this … is an overreaction because the positives it gets by promoting understanding of the Chinese language and culture far outweighs any negative cultural impact,” he said, distinguishing the controversy from taking issue with the Chinese government’s politics.

Steven Hirsch, an associate professor of classics, also praised the quality of tutoring he has received at the Institute. While he noted the validity of opponents’ concerns about Chinese influence in American education, he feels that Tufts seems to have safeguarded against these concerns through the composition of its board of directors, dominated by Tufts administrators and faculty members.

“The professed goals are to spread knowledge of Chinese language and culture as a part of better understanding, and that sounds like a worthy goal for me,” he said.

Hamill emphasized the importance of Chinese language and cultural initiatives that are not linked to the Institutes, because of the costs associated with the government’s sponsorship of the program.

“When you scratch beneath the surface, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Confucius Institute compromises academic ideals and principles at Tufts,” she said. “It is important to examine what is happening right here on campus with the presence of the Confucius Institute, Hanban and the Chinese government and to question what should be done.”

Tethong questioned whether the university community would allow such direct influence with other governments, adding that the government’s core values do not match up with those of the United States and should therefore not have a role in the education system.

“In this age of newfound understanding of the role that Russia played in the meddling in the election and continues to play in disrupting the political system in this free and open society,” Tethong said, “there’s a lot of scope for pushing forward on a campaign against China’s Confucius Institute and a direct Chinese presence.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that Tenzin Chokki identifies as Tibetan.


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