Tufts made the right decision in shutting down its Confucius Institute

Tufts announced on March 17 that it would join the group of 75 universities that have decided to close their Confucius Institutes. After years of criticism and controversy surrounding the institutes, this long-awaited announcement came about in light of a series of protests from students and members of the community.

The Confucius Institute at Tufts University (CITU) program was originally established in 2015 “to provide support for supplemental, not-for-credit Chinese language and culture instruction and programming, and to facilitate educational and cultural exchange and cooperation between Tufts and Beijing Normal University (BNU),” according to the announcement from the Tufts Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President. In 2019, Tufts made the controversial decision to renew the agreement for two more years. This decision disregarded the many complaints from students and community members alike who argued that the ostensible motivation for the establishment and maintenance of the CITU misrepresented the true implications of the institute. 

For the past 13 weeks, students, organizers from the Tibetan Association of Boston and Students for a Free Tibet, and other members of the Uighur and Hong Kong communities have held protests against the continuation of the CITU program, according to a Tufts Daily article.

The Confucius Institute, which is funded, organized and supported by the Chinese Communist Party, has become a topic of controversy in light of various documented human rights abuses in China. The partnership of academic institutions with the Chinese Communist Party’s Confucius Institutes not only allows a space and platform for the party’s propaganda, but also implies support or, at best, naivete towards the climate of human rights abuses in China.

Yangchen T. Nangpa, a public defender and community organizer in Boston, who has contributed to the efforts to shut down the CITU program as well as the Confucius Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston, explained the implications of the Confucius Institute for communities affected by the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

“For many Tibetan Americans like myself whose parents or grandparents have fled Tibet due to Chinese occupation, it is extremely distressing and traumatizing to see American schools partnering with a regime that has ruthlessly committed genocide on our people and our culture,” Nangpa said.

Like Nangpa, many critics of the Confucius Institutes cite the association with the Chinese Communist Party as an implication of support or ambivalence towards the violent actions of the Chinese government. This implicit message invalidates the atrocities which many communities have faced at the hands of the party. Additionally, it is especially important for academic institutions to create spaces in which students can not only learn about Chinese language and culture, but can do so in a manner that still allows for critical evaluation of governmental entities.

Prior to the decision to renew the CITU program in 2019, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton stated, “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.” Moulton’s argument brings up the important point that it is the duty of academic institutions like Tufts to facilitate critical thinking and encourage the formation of nuanced perspectives with regards to organizations we are involved in.

In light of recent increases in anti-Asian violence and incidents of racism throughout the country, some people fear that criticism of the Confucius Institutes will further exacerbate the issue. However, it is important to recognize that this movement specifically criticizes the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement while maintaining the importance of education about Chinese language and culture. Nangpa argues that “these colleges and universities [can] teach Chinese language and culture without being answerable to the Chinese government … They must know that Chinese language and culture can be taught without partnering with a regime that continues to kill, torture, and arrest people for simply speaking up.”

In the decision to close the institute, the university stated that it “remain[s] committed to international engagement with our partners and are enthused by increased student interest in Chinese language and culture.” This modified agreement fulfills the goal of teaching Chinese language and culture to Tufts students while simultaneously respecting the concerns voiced by those opposed to the CITU.

Tufts’ decision to close the Confucius Institute while maintaining programs with Beijing Normal University represents another hopeful example for other universities to encourage complete and unbiased education of Chinese language and culture.