Concerns and controversies over Confucius Institutes

Concerns and controversies over Confucius Institutes

The Confucius Institute (CI) program, which began establishing centers for Chinese language instruction in 2004, has been the subject of considerable controversy during its rapid international expansion. Much of this scrutiny stems from the institutes’ relationship to Chinese Communist Party authorities, giving rise to concerns about improper influence over teaching and research at host universities, industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and attempts to advance the Communist Party’s political agendas on issues such as Tibetan independence and Taiwanese independence. Additional concerns have arisen over the institutes’ financing, academic viability, legal issues, teaching quality, and relations with Chinese partner universities.[1]

Professors and administrators at many institutions (for example, the University of Melbourne and University of Chicago) have opposed the establishment of a Confucius Institute, owing to concerns over potential CI interference with academic freedom, or pressure to censor on topics that the Communist Party of China finds objectionable. Confucius Institutes have largely avoided contending with such controversial subjects as human rights and democracy, perhaps out of fear of inviting further criticism,[2] and have been perceived by some observers as limiting themselves to cultural and language education programs.[3]



The Confucius Institute program began in 2004 and is financed by the Office of Chinese Language Council International (colloquially, Hanban (汉办)), which describes itself as a non-government, non-profit organization that is affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China.[4] The institutes operate in co-operation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the world. The related Confucius Classroom program partners with secondary schools or school districts to provide Chinese language teachers and instructional materials.[5][6]

As of July 2010, there were 316 Confucius Institutes and 337 Confucius Classrooms in 94 countries and regions.[7]


Confucius Institutes’ stated missions are to promote knowledge of Chinese language and culture abroad, as well as to promote commercial and trade cooperation. In the context of the Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy objectives, the institutes serve as tools of cultural diplomacy intended to bolster China’s soft power abroad, and shape perceptions of its policies.

The Economist notes that China "has been careful not to encourage these language centres to act as overt purveyors of the party’s political viewpoints, and little suggests they are doing so... but officials do say that an important goal is to give the world a “correct” understanding of China."[8]

Critical perceptions of objectives

A declassified intelligence report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says, "Beijing is out to win the world's hearts and minds, not just its economic markets, as a means of cementing power."[9]

Stockholm's Institute for Security and Development Policy described the founding of CIs as "an image management project, the purpose of which is to promote the greatness of Chinese culture while at the same time counterattacking public opinion that maintains the presence of a 'China threat' in the international community."[10]

An Asian Survey article notes concerns over a "Trojan horse effect" of CIs. "The Confucius Institute project can be seen at one level as an attempt to increase Chinese language learning and an appreciation of Chinese culture, but at another level it is part of a broader soft power projection in which China is attempting to win hearts and minds for political purposes." Besides CIs, some other ways that China raises its cultural profile overseas include Chinese contemporary art exhibitions, television programs, concerts by popular singers, and translations of Chinese literature.[11]

At a hearing of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Anne-Marie Brady, a University of Canterbury political science professor, testified that China considers propaganda work the "life blood (shengmingxian) of the Party-State in the current area", and promotes foreign propaganda towards the Overseas Chinese community through Confucius Institutes and activities such as "root-seeking (xun gen) cultural tours."[12][13]

A Christian Science Monitor article critically framed the CI question, "Let's suppose that a cruel, tyrannical, and repressive foreign government offered to pay for American teens to study its national language in our schools. Would you take the deal?"[14]

The Government of India rejected the idea of Confucius Institutes in schools, and called them "a Chinese design to spread its 'soft power' – widening influence by using culture as a propagational tool."[15][16]

A Der Spiegel article about threats from China's soft power criticized Beijing for using Confucius Institutes "in hopes of promoting what it views as China's cultural superiority".[17]

Few top-tier Japanese universities have accepted Confucius Institutes. "Of the more than 17 CIs launched in Japan since 2005, all were at private colleges" instead of at more prestigious national universities. "Chinese culture traditionally holds significant influence in Japan, but people remain concerned by the potential ideological and cultural threat of Chinese government-run projects such as CIs."[18]

After community members of Hacienda La Puente Unified School District opposed establishing a Confucius Institute, history teacher Jane Shults described criticisms of Confucius Classrooms as "...jingoistic, xenophobic, not overly rational and it’s really shades of McCarthyism all over again."[19] A San Gabriel Valley Tribune editorial compared this CI program as "tantamount of asking Hugo Chavez to send his cadres to teach little American kids economics."[20]

A China Daily editorial accused CI opponents of hypocrisy for not calling "Goethe Institutes, Alliances Francaises or Cervantes Institutes as propaganda vehicles or tools of cultural invasion".[21]

Critics have responded to comparisons to the Goethe-Institut or Alliance Francaises by pointing out that, unlike Confucius Institutes, those organizations do not attach themselves to universities or other educational institutions, "consequently there is a widely-held suspicion that these institutes are aimed less at fostering interest in China and Chinese culture itself, and more at ensuring that such interest is guided along lines approved of by the Chinese party-state."[22] Jocelyn Chey, a visiting professor at Sydney and former diplomat with expertise in Australia-China relations, criticized CI "as a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese communist party, and not a counterpart to the Goethe Institute or Alliance Française."[23][24] Considering the close links between the CI, Chinese government, and Communist Party, Professor Chey later warned "this could lead at best to a "dumbing down" of research and at worst could produce propaganda."[25]

Relationship to Chinese Communist Party and government of China

A number of the more serious concerns and controversies surrounding the Confucius Institutes stems from its relationship to the Chinese party-state. Hanban, the body which administers Confucius Institutes, states on its website that it is a non-profit, non-government organization, though it is connected with China’s Ministry of Education and has close ties to a number of senior Communist Party officials. The current chair of Hanban is Politburo member Liu Yandong.[26] Ms. Liu was formerly the head of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China.

According to Fabrice De Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a number of individuals holding positions within the Confucius Institute system have backgrounds in Chinese security agencies and United Front Work Department, “which manages important dossiers concerning foreign countries. These include propaganda, the control of Chinese students abroad, the recruiting of agents among the Chinese diaspora (and among sympathetic foreigners), and long-term clandestine operations.”[27]

Confucius Institutes are described in official Communist Party literature in the context of Hu Jintao’s soft power initiatives, designed to influence perceptions of China and its policies abroad. Li Changchun, the 5th-highest ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was quoted in The Economist saying that the Confucius Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.[28] In 2007, the Communist Party increased the United Front Work Department’s budget by $3 million to further bolster China’s “soft power” abroad.[27]


Confucius Institutes are funded jointly by grants from China’s Ministry of Education and funds from host universities.

Some critics have suggested that Beijing’s contributions to host universities gives Chinese authorities too much leverage over those institutions. The sizable grants that come with the establishment of Confucius Institutes could make universities more susceptible to pressure from Beijing to exercise self-censorship, particularly on Chinese human rights issues or other politically sensitive topics.[29]

Additional concerns have been raised over the opacity of China’s financial involvement in the CIs. In a profile of the Confucius Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), the Vancouver Sun wrote that Beijing “contributes undisclosed amounts to cover costs. Receipts leaked to The Vancouver Sun show that China has wired several hundred thousand dollars to its BCIT Confucius Institute,” which had few students and showed little sign of activity. The dean of the CI program refused to release financial data, stating that “Beijing insists on confidentiality because such information could affect its negotiations with other institutions anxious to have their own Confucius Institutes.”[30]

Maria Wey-Shen Siow, East Asia bureau chief of Channel NewsAsia, wrote in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin that concerns over Confucius Institutes projecting political undertones "are not completely unfounded, but may not be totally warranted."[31]  She highlights that, for all the CI controversies, "Han Ban’s annual budget was only US$145 million in 2009 so it would be false to state that China has been spending massively on these institutes."[31]


Critics of Confucius Institutes have cited concerns that they could serve as a vehicle for industrial and military espionage, as well as for surveillance of Chinese students studying abroad. The intelligence services of several countries have pursued studies of Confucius Institutes, including the Canadian organization CSIS.[27]

Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas was quoted by the Vancouver Sun as stating that "Nominally, [the institutes] are just Chinese studies . . . but informally they become a vehicle that the Chinese government uses to basically intimidate the academic institutions to run according to their guise and also as a vehicle for infiltration and spying into the campuses to find out what's going on hostile to their interest."[29]

Fabrice De Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya have raised concerns over ties between Confucius Institute administrators and large state-run Chinese companies. For instance, they point to the Confucius Institute in Dallas, Texas, where one of the top officials is also vice-president of Huawei, a Chinese telecom company that the U.S. government regards as a national security threat, and which has been accused of industrial espionage.[27]

The People's Daily reports that Osaka Sangyo University in Japan, which opened a Confucius Institute and closed it after one year of operation, formally apologized for an employee calling the CI "a spy agency established to gather cultural intelligence."[32]


Among the more pragmatic concerns surrounding Confucius Institutes is their financial viability, level of local interest, and quality of instruction. A number of institutes have struggled with low attendance rates; the Confucius Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), for instance, was described as showing little activity: “Three recent visits by The Sun to BCIT's eighth floor found an unstaffed reception desk carrying the Confucius Institute name. On one visit, the entire eighth floor was vacant; on another, classes were in session but all were sponsored by other organizations.” The BCIT Confucius Institute had enrolled only 250 students part-time (including one-day workshops) in the first two years of operation.[29]

Some universities have declined to host Confucius Institutes because the university’s own Chinese language instruction programs were already fulfilling the needs of their students and communities. Moreover, the teachers provided by Hanban have in some cases been described as inadequate and inexperienced in providing second-language instruction.

Political propaganda

Canada's Globe and Mail reported, "Despite their neutral scholarly appearance, the new network of Confucius Institutes does have a political agenda." For example, teaching with the simplified Chinese characters used in the PRC rather than the Traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan "would help to advance Beijing’s goal of marginalizing Taiwan in the battle for global influence.”[33] An article in China Heritage Quarterly describes teaching only simplified characters as "semi-literacy in Chinese", and gives an example; "the character for 'love', 愛 ai, the simplification of which—爱—has expunged the 'heart' 心 from the traditional character and replaced it with 'friend' 友. Critics lambast the simplified form for denoting 'heartless love'."[34] In 2011, the Republic of China announced plans to establish the Taiwan Academy. These cultural centers in America, Europe, and Asia are designed to promote "Taiwanese-favored" Mandarin Chinese and Traditional Chinese characters.[35]

In 2009, the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland hosted a photo exhibit on Tibet, and invited Minister Xie Feng of Chinese Embassy in Washington DC to speak at the event. In his remarks, the minister praised the “democratic” developments in the region since the Communist takeover of Tibet in 1949, and called allegations of human rights abuses, religious persecution and cultural genocide “sheer nonsense” and “groundless accusation.”[36]

Peng Ming-min, a Taiwan independence activist and politician, writes that although on the surface China merely demonstrates its "soft power" through CIs, "Colleges and universities where a Confucius Institute is established all have to sign a contract in which they declare their support for Beijing’s “one China” policy. As a result, both Taiwan and Tibet have become taboos at these institutes." Peng lists other examples of CI "untouchable" issues including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, neglect of human rights, environmental pollution in China, and the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.[37]

Influence over academic freedom within universities

When a CI was established at the University of Melbourne, members of the Chinese studies department objected to it being located within the faculty of arts, and the institute was set up away from the main campus.[38]

Faculty at Stockholm University demanded the separation of the Nordic Confucius Institute from the university, but an independent assessment rejected their claims that the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm was using the CI for conducting political surveillance and inhibiting academic freedom. The Parliament of Sweden took up this issue, and Göran Lindblad compared the CIs to Benito Mussolini’s Italian Institutes of the 1930s,[39]

Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania decided not to negotiate with CI. According to G. Cameron Hurst III, the former director of the Center for East Asian Studies, "There was a general feeling that it was not an appropriate thing for us to do. We feel absolutely confident in the instructors that we train here, and we didn't want them meddling in our curriculum."[40]

Over 170 University of Chicago faculty members signed a letter to University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer that called CIs "an academically and politically ambiguous initiative sponsored by the government of the People's Republic of China."[41] The letter broadly discussed perceived problems in university governance and alleged that the university had proceeded "without due care to ensure the institute's academic integrity" and had risked having its own reputation used to "legitimate the spread of such Confucius Institutes in this country and beyond."[42]

Faculty at the University of Manitoba oppose establishing a CI, and Professor Terry Russell said, "'We have a real conflict of our principles of academic freedom,' with the potential to have a faculty version of Chinese history and a Confucius Institute version being taught on campus."[43][44]

According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, since the first Confucius Institute was established at the University of Maryland in 2004, "there have been no complaints of the institutes' getting in the way of academic freedom on American campuses".[45] The same article however goes on to write that the Institutes are "distinct in the degree to which they were financed and managed by a foreign government."[46] Moreover, this article also mention that "the only place where such fears have been realized is Israel", where in 2008, Tel Aviv University officials, who feared loss of CI funding, shut down a student art exhibition about the Chinese oppression of Falun Gong, which a judge ruled had violated freedom of expression. The article adds that in 2010, the University of Oregon "came under – and resisted – pressure from the Chinese consul general in San Francisco to cancel a lecture by Peng Ming-Min, an advocate of Taiwanese independence."[47]

Discriminatory hiring policy

In 2011, a controversy erupted over the instructor hiring policies posted publicly on Hanban’s website, which forbids prospective teachers from practicing Falun Gong, a religious qigong practice persecuted in China. Human rights lawyers and media commentators in North America suggested that the hiring practices were in contravention of anti-discrimination laws. The website stated that Chinese language instructors should be “Aged between 22 to 60, physical and mental healthy, no record of participation in Falun Gong and other illegal organizations, and no criminal record.”[48] Conservative media commentator and lawyer Ezra Levant said on a Canadian news program “That would be like saying: ‘No Jews Allowed.’ That would be like if in the 1930s if we had a German Institute in universities saying you have to be healthy, 22 to 60, and ‘No Jews Allowed.’” Marci Hamilton, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, commented that the policy is “unethical and illegal in the free world. The notion that in the United States or Canada we tolerate conduct simply because it originates in another country is false.”[49]

When pressed for their views on the discriminatory hiring policy, the directors at some Confucius Institutes absolved themselves by stating that the teachers come from China, and hiring guidelines are thus the prerogative of Chinese authorities. Yan Yuzhou, associate-director of the Confucius Institute at Pace University in New York, stated “They send them to us...You know, volunteers from China, the Chinese government has a right to ban them, I think.”[49]

This statement is contrasted against the claim by the CI director for the Chicago Public Schools, who was quoted in the Asia Times as saying "Confucius Institutes have total autonomy in their course materials and teachers."[50]


The Sydney Morning Herald quotes a Department of Education official saying that the "venture plays a large part in pushing better literacy in Asian languages...", but "they concede that situations could arise where it was "best [for students] not to engage in" discussions about controversial subjects such as the massacre in Tiananmen Square or China's human rights record, raising questions about China's influence over the program's content."[51][52]

Mary E. Gallagher, an associate professor and the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said that the "Confucius institute there has been free to cover some topics 'that are controversial and sensitive in China'".[53]

In 2009, it was reported that the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh "promoted a talk by a dissident Chinese author whose works are banned in China."[54]

The Parliament of New South Wales received a petition, with more than 4000 signatures, calling for the removal of the Confucius Classroom Program from local schools. Greens MP John Kaye stated that although teaching Chinese language and culture is important, "Students are being denied a balanced curriculum that explores controversial issues, such as human rights violations and Taiwan, because critical examination might upset the Chinese government." The NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, disagreed because the Chinese language syllabuses did not include the study of political content.[55]

Glenn Anthony May, a University of Oregon history professor, writes in the Asia Sentinel that Confucius Institutes "come with visible strings attached." For instance, host institutions must sign a memorandum of understanding to support the One-China policy. "At universities, we normally have an opportunity to debate issues like that, allowing professors like me and students to take issue publicly with our government's policy. Hanban, for obvious reasons, wants no such discussion to occur."[56] Meiru Liu, director of the Confucius Institute at Portland State University, responded to Professor May's criticisms that CIs hinder open discussions of issues such as the Chinese treatment of Liu Xiaobo, and said they had sponsored lectures on Tibet "with an emphasis on its beautiful scenery, customs and tourist interest," on China's economic development, currency, and US-China relations. Liu explained, "We try not to organize and host lectures on certain issues related to Falun Gong, dissidents and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests." For one thing, she said, these are not topics the Confucius Institute headquarters would like to see organized by the institutes. "For another, they are not major interest and concerns now by general public at large here in the US."[57]

Interference to free expression in universities

In 2008, Tel Aviv University officials shut down a student art exhibition depicting the Persecution of Falun Gong in China. A Tel Aviv District Court judge subsequently ruled the university "violated freedom of expression and succumbed to pressure from the Chinese Embassy, which funds various activities at the university, and took down the exhibit, violating freedom of expression."[58] This ruling concluded the dean of students "feared that the art exhibit would jeopardize Chinese support for its Confucius Institute and other educational activities on the campus."[59]

Other controversies

Additional concerns center on potential for corruption and conflict of interests within Hanban, which is ostensibly a non-profit organization but operates CI-related companies for profit. In November 2009, for instance, the deputy director of Hanban established a company that won a $5 million USD bid in France to build and operate the Confucius Institutes’s website.[60]

The St. Petersburg Times reports that investigators at the University of South Florida found professor Dajin Peng, the former director of their Confucius Institute, "took thousands of dollars from the university by claiming he was attending conferences when he was on vacation or working as a paid instructor at other schools." He also misrepresented his authority to help thirty Chinese nationals obtain United States visas and gave two graduate students an unfair advantage on exams. Peng denied the university's "witch hunt" findings, said the FBI "decided to force me into a spy for the USA", and claimed, "This scheme goes all the way to President Obama."[61]

Some critics, including within China, have expressed worry that "the government’s support for the CIs' budgets detracts from domestic spending" when the Ministry of Education "budget for domestic compulsory education remains inadequate." Swedish Parliamentarian Göran Lindblad was similarly critical of why Chinese authorities are subsidizing Western educational institutions when "China has ten million children without proper schools."[62][63]

There has also been criticism over the Communist Party’s appropriation of Confucius. Under Mao Zedong, Confucian values and teachings were perennial targets of criticism and suppression, being viewed as vestiges of feudalism. According to Asia Times Online, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong criticized Confucian teachings as "rubbish that should be thrown into the 'Ash heap of history" while the 21st-century CCP uses Confucianism as "an assistant to the Chinese god of wealth (and a representative of Chinese diplomacy), but not a tutor for Chinese soul."[64]

Yan Li (or Li Yan 李彥), Confucius Institute director at the University of Waterloo, was angered by western media reports about China's 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay and the 2008 Tibetan unrest, and organized her classes to fight the Canadian media over their coverage of human rights abuses in Tibet. In a sympathetic blog portrayal, Professor Yan described how, "Under her influence, some Canadian students bravely debated with anti-China elements on the internet, and some wrote to television stations and newspapers to point out that their reporting was not according to the facts."[65]


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