China’s soft-diplomacy push hit a speed bump this week when the University of Chicago decided to pull the plug on renewing a controversial Beijing-funded Confucius Institute.
The decision may prompt other universities to rethink their relationships with Confucius institutes – attractive because they offer free Chinese-language classes and cultural programs to cash-strapped colleges in the United States, albeit with limitations on what they can teach.
In a statement Thursday, the University of Chicago said it had tried to negotiate a renewal agreement with Hanban, the Chinese agency that manages Confucius institutes. “However, recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership,” the statement said.
Asked about the offending comments, university spokeswoman Sarah Nolan cited a Sept. 19 article published in the Chinese-language newspaper Jiefang Daily of Shanghai. The comments in question appear toward the end of the article, when Hanban director Xu Lin is quoted as bragging about her tough negotiating style with the university.
The article says that after UChicago faculty objected to the Confucius Institute in April, Xu wrote a letter to the university’s president with only one line, “If your school decides to withdraw, I will agree to it.” The article then reports that UChicago got “anxious” and reassured Xu that it would continue to host the Confucius Institute.
In all likelihood, the university’s decision to drop the Confucius Institute was related only partly to Xu’s reported braggadocio. As of May, more than 100 faculty members had signed on to a letter calling for the university to end its relationship with Hanban and close the institute. The letter objected to allowing Hanban to “have a voice in the research and curriculum of the university,” compromising its academic freedom and subjecting staff and students to China’s “political constraints on free speech and belief.”
Hanban officials, and some of its U.S. supporters, say the organization doesn’t attach strings to its funding of Confucius institutes. Detractors say, however, that there’s substantial evidence that Hanban tells Confucius Institute instructors not to discuss topics deemed sensitive to Beijing, such as the status of Taiwan or the treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in China. Many analysts say China is investing in Confucius institutes to project an image abroad as a benevolent rising power, even as it asserts territorial claims off its coasts and violates human rights covenants.
In June, Xu Lin was at the center of another incident when, at a major Sinology conference in Portugal, she reportedly ordered pages to be torn out of a conference program that had to do with Taiwan. That same month, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement urging American universities to end their relationship with Confucius institutes unless they have full control of academic practices.
A year earlier, the Canadian Association of University Teachers had issued a similar recommendation.
Despite such blow-back and reported missteps, Xu remains a powerful figure in China’s Ministry of Education, which is closely connected with Hanban, a nongovernmental organization. She’s a vice minister and serves on China’s State Council, the country’s main administrative authority. She’s spearheaded the Confucius Institute program since it started in 2004, and she’s received honorary degrees from the University of Arizona, Western Kentucky University and other U.S. colleges.
During her tenure, the number of Confucius institutes worldwide has grown to more than 400, about a quarter of them at U.S. universities. All offer language classes, and some have special niches. At Miami Dade College, the Confucius Institute emphasizes Chinese filmmaking. At the University of California, Davis, a recently opened Confucius Institute attracts students with a focus on Chinese cuisine.
Efforts to obtain comment from Xu or Hanban were unsuccessful Friday. But according to the online news site Inside HigherEd, Hanban issued a statement, saying, “It’s a pity that the University of Chicago has made the public statement before finding out the truth. Since Confucius Institute is a collaboration program, both sides can make a choice.”
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher thought to have lived from 551 to 479 B.C., has been enjoying a resurgence in China in recent decades after having been denigrated as one of the “four olds” during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. On Wednesday, according to state media, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to address an international meeting on Confucius. It isn’t known for sure what Xi said at the meeting, which was at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Foreign reporters weren’t invited or allowed to attend.