The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambition of being dominant in the modern world is not something secret. It has been shaping its global strategies for many years now.
In President Xi Jinping’s plan of the ‘China Dream’, Confucius Institute (CI) plays a vital role to strengthen CCP’s control over educational matters. CI is considered yet another successful tactic — telling good stories about China, promoting soft power, and winning greater influences around the globe.
How Confucius Institute makes way to campus around the world
Sending teachers abroad as a form of cultural and linguistic diplomacy is not unusual. For instance, the Alliance Française for French, the Goethe-Institut for German, the Instituto Cervantes for Spanish, and the British Council for English.
China’s Confucius Institutes sound similar enough to these Western institutions. Since the first CI was set up in Seoul 14 years ago, more than 516 of these language and culture centers teaching funded and staffed in part with instructors screened by a Chinese government-affiliated entity known as Hanban (Office of Chinese Language Council International) (1). The Hanban is chaired by Politburo member and Vice Premier Liu Yandong, former head of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and has been set up in 142 countries and regions (2). The aim is to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020 (3).
United Front Work Department, as Reuters described in an article published on March 2018, “has broad aims to win support for Chinese political interests and build influence through measures, such as co-opting and influencing the overseas Chinese diaspora and other well-connected groups outside the Communist Party.” (4). In other words, it is a tool for the CCP to reach and control Chinese living around the world.
Confucius Institute – A branch of CCP in U.S. soil
Confucius Institutes operate in a fundamentally different way from other Western cultural and linguistic institutes. Instead of having stand-alone institutes, CIs insists on operating inside existing colleges and universities. The host universities are expected to provide premises and a faculty member to serve as an administrator. In return, the school gets US$100,000 a year from Hanban, teaching materials, and the chance to apply for additional money for specific programs. This move heavily targeted the United States, which is home to more Confucius Institutes and Classrooms than any other nation, and that is nearly 40 percent of the total (5).
Confucius Institutes are mostly supported jointly by China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and funds from host universities. Although Hanban had set a financial objective for self-sufficiency within five years, this goal had been proven to be unrealistic (7). David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC says in his book, “China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy” that Confucius Institute funding “is in fact laundered through the MOE from the CCP Propaganda Department’s External Propaganda Department” (8).
In her article published on Inside Higher Ed in 2012, journalist Elizabeth Redden wrote that David Prager Branner, a Chinese lexicographer and adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, said it is a fallacy to believe that ‘taking money from the Chinese government will have no long-term consequences’. (9)” Some critics have suggested Beijing’s contributions to host universities give Chinese authorities too much leverage over those institutions, and could lead to universities becoming more susceptible to pressures from Beijing to exercise self-censorship, particularly on Chinese human rights issues or other politically sensitive topics.
Although the Confucius Institutes may seem to many to be simply offering cultural events programming and noncredit courses in introductory Chinese, calligraphy or Tai Chi, it would be more accurate to think of them as a way for China to nurture pro-China view and shape public opinion following wills of the CCP.
In an article published on The Politico in January, 2018, journalist Ethan Epstein mentioned, “Confucius Institutes teach a very particular, Beijing-approved version of Chinese culture and history: one that ignores concerns over human rights, for example, and teaches that Taiwan and Tibet indisputably belong to Mainland China” (10). This is exactly like how Li Changchun, the 5th-highest-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, once quoted in The Economist saying the Institutes were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup” (11).
“Peng Ming-min, Taiwan independence activist and politician, wrote that colleges and universities where a Confucius Institute is established have to sign a contract to declare their support for Beijing’s “one China” policy. Peng stated that both Taiwan and Tibet have “become taboos at these institutes.” According to Peng, other examples of CI ‘untouchable’ issues included the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, neglect of human rights, environmental pollution in China, and the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo…” (12).
Chinese minister of propaganda Liu Yunshan stated in a 2010 People’s Daily article that the aims of Confucius Institutes are to “coordinate the efforts of overseas and domestic propaganda, [and] further create a favorable international environment for us… with regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety. Liu was quoted saying “we should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issuers, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights, and Falun Gong. … We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes”(13). Liu’s orders are followed as Confucius Institutes have sprouted all over the world.
3. Censorship and academic freedom
Isaac Stone Fish in the article “Why are America’s elite universities censoring themselves on China?” on The New Republic wrote: “Some people in American academia, too eager to please Beijing or too fearful of offending China and the Chinese people, have submitted to a sophisticated global censorship regime. This weakens not only their scholarship and integrity, but also their negotiating power with Beijing over issues, such as access for research, conferences and other academic collaborations, and joint programs between American and Chinese institutions.”
Fish gave many examples for explanation, such as Columbia University’s Global Center in Beijing canceled several talks it feared would upset Chinese officials, or North Carolina State University canceled a visit from the Dalai Lama in 2009 as the university’s provost, Warwick Arden said “China is a major trading partner for North Carolina”(14). In September 2016 the provost of New York’s Alfred University, Rick Stephens, personally ejected researcher Rachelle Peterson from campus for investigating the Chinese regime’s influence at the school (15)”. A Chinese student Yang Shuping was criticized and had to issue a public apology for her graduation speech at the University of Maryland in May 2017 for praising the “fresh air” of the American system and saying that democracy and freedom are “worth fighting for” (16).
Self-censorship is usually not easy to detect. Not many experts on China are willing to discuss this issue, or even consider it an issue. That is because there has never been any formal guidance or requirement on what they should and must do toward sensitive topics. Isaac Stone Fish described in his article: “Roughly a dozen people I spoke with told me that they don’t self-censor, but that they do occasionally word things differently so as not to “offend” their Chinese hosts, partners, or students.”
Fish explained why academic self-censorship from China is especially concerning. “The country is America’s most important foreign relationship, chief geostrategic concern, largest single trading partner, and only real rival for global political power.” He went on to say, “U.S. universities and think tanks are among the best sources of information about China, especially because censorship there reduces the utility of Chinese journalists and academics working in the country. Self-censorship within American institutions, therefore, restricts the ability of U.S. policymakers, businesspeople, human rights advocates, and the general public to make smart decisions about how to interact with China.”
Punishment for people who do not follow the self-censorship trend, as considered undermining the CCP rule, can be public histrionics or private penalties. These include canceling visas, threatening to close business door to their 1.4 billion-people market, or issuing statements condemning foreigners who misspeak as having “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”— a term that usually appear to let one know that they have crossed the off-limits line of the CCP. One example is the Chinese state-run media’s response that Beijing is not impressed by United Airlines’ work-around in executing the CCP’s demand of not listing Taiwan as a country on their website (17).
In his article, Isaac Stone Fish mentioned that Chinese students, American faculty members, and human rights activists believe Chinese students and faculty sometimes spy on other Chinese students—and even American professors.
Senator Ted Cruz once quoted on The Washington Post that “Communist China is infiltrating American universities to meddle with our curricula, silence criticism of their regime, and steal intellectual property including sensitive dual-use research” (17). Peter Mattis, a former U.S. intelligence analyst now with the Jamestown Foundation said “They [CIs] are an instrument of the party’s power, not a support for independent scholarship. They can be used to groom academics and administrators to provide a voice for the party in university decision-making(18)”.
FBI Director Christopher Wray and many others also express their concerns that Confucius Institutes may be engaging in espionage. Wray once described CIs as “nontraditional collectors — especially in the academic setting” in a testimony hearing on February 2018 (19). Congressmen Michael McCaul and Henry Cuellar sent a bipartisan letter on March 23, 2018 to universities in Texas, urging them to consider cutting ties with the CCP through partnership with Confucius Institutes. “These organizations are a threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda”, stated in the letter (20).
Actions are taken in the wake of Chinese infiltration
America is awakening to China’s foreign influence operations campaign inside the United States. At last, U.S. academics, officials, and lawmakers are now focusing on resisting Chinese efforts to influence free societies.
Schools are putting the decision of opening CI into re-consideration, and some even closing it. The University of North Florida is the latest to close the Confucius Institute on their campus, among eight other American colleges or universities that have closed or are in the process of closing their Confucius Institutes. These include The University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University, Pfeiffer University, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, University of West Florida, Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, and The University of Iowa (21). Compared to nearly 100 other universities that are still defending Confucius Institutes, there is still a long way to go. But at least, more lights have been put on the Communist Party operating inside America’s higher-education system.
Senator Ted Cruz is introducing a legislation called the ‘Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018,’ intended to “give the U.S. law enforcement community more tools to deal with the CCP’s expansion inside American educational institutions”, even though it does not mention China by name (22). The bill creates “a way for the FBI to designate an entity as a ‘foreign intelligence threat to higher education’ and require academic institutions to follow strict reporting and disclosure rules for any financial interactions with designated foreign entities.” It also reduces “the threshold for universities for reporting on foreign financial contributions or gifts, from $250,000 to $50,000.” This mirrors a House legislative effort led by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) to bring Confucius Institutes under the reporting rules of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
FBI Director Christopher Wray expresses his concerns, stating that the FBI is “watching warily” and investigating. (23)
Even President Donald Trump has got his eyes on Confucius Institutes. The bipartisan ‘National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019’ will require that in order for colleges and universities to get funds for Chinese language programs from Federal Government, “they must not have a Confucius Institute or must demonstrate that the Confucius Institute and its staff play no role in the federally funded Chinese language program. Colleges receiving those funds would also be required to make publicly available all agreements and contracts related to the Confucius Institute” (24).
Not only in the U.S., academics in other parts of the world are beginning to recognize the real threat a Confucius Institute poses. In an interview with the New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a New York-based broadcasting network, ……. Lhadon Tethong—Director at Tibet Action Institute— described Confucius Institute as “teaching in our schools their version of history, trying to change history, trying to spread their propaganda, and trying to influence the future generations not to pay attention to or care about, or even know about the issue of Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, Chinese democracy. It’s not right!” (25).
Chen Yonglin, former Chinese Diplomat at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney, Australia, opened up to China Uncensored—a satirical news show about China on Youtube—saying, “China has never given up the cold war of thinking… the ideological, the propaganda. All the propaganda are lies.” Chen who defected to Australia in 2005 said “If you read the Chinese Communist Party propaganda, you should read the opposite meaning; that is correct. So if CCP said that this is an evil part, evil group, Falun Gong is evil; that means Falun Gong is really good!” (26)
As people realizes the true nature of Confucius Institutes, more actions are going to be taken in the future to prevent China’s intention to manipulate countries in order to get the dominant position of the world. Nobody knows what the future brings. But one thing we know for sure is that China’s silent invasion is no longer going unnoticed.
(2) Confucius Institutes across Africa are nurturing generations of pro-China Mandarin speakers, https://qz.com/africa/1113559/confucius-institutes-in-africa-are-nurturing-mandarin-speakers-with-pro-china-views/
(3) Liu Yandong, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Yandong
(4) China strengthens global influence agency in government reshuffle, https://www.reuters.com/article/china-parliament-influence/china-strengthens-global-influence-agency-in-government-reshuffle-idINKBN1GX189
(5) American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/09/american-universities-are-welcoming-chinas-trojan-horse-confucius-institutes/
(7) China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/b9789004302488_026
(8) Confucius Says …, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/04/debate-over-chinese-funded-institutes-american-universities
(9) How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/16/how-china-infiltrated-us-classrooms-216327
(10) A message from Confucius, https://www.economist.com/special-report/2009/10/22/a-message-from-confucius
(11) Criticism of Confucius Institutes, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Confucius_Institutes
(12) Inside Job: Beijing’s New Allies in Its War on Tibet, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lhadon-tethong/inside-job-beijings-new-a_b_3353844.html
(13) New Scrutiny for Confucius Institutes, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/26/report-confucius-institutes-finds-no-smoking-guns-enough-concerns-recommend-closure
(14) New Scrutiny for Confucius Institutes, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/26/report-confucius-institutes-finds-no-smoking-guns-enough-concerns-recommend-closure
(15) A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/05/23/a-chinese-student-praised-the-fresh-air-of-free-speech-at-a-u-s-college-then-came-the-backlash/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.581f551086f1
(16) Beijing unimpressed by United Airlines’ ‘flexible’ approach to Taiwan, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2162022/beijing-unimpressed-united-airlines-flexible-approach-taiwan
(17) Preventing Chinese espionage at America’s universities, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2018/05/22/preventing-chinese-espionage-at-americas-universities/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d26d1732cb93
(18) The director of the FBI says the whole of Chinese society is a threat to the US — and that Americans must step up to defend themselves, https://www.businessinsider.sg/china-threat-to-america-fbi-director-warns-2018-2/?r=US&IR=T
(19) McCaul, Cuellar Send Letter to Texas Universities Hosting Confucius Institutes, https://mccaul.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/mccaul-cuellar-send-letter-to-texas-universities-hosting-confucius
(20) Defense Bill Limits Funding for Colleges with Confucius Institutes, https://www.nas.org/articles/defense_bill_limits_funding_for_colleges_with_confucius_institutes
(21) How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?, https://www.nas.org/articles/how_many_confucius_institutes_are_in_the_united_states
(22) Washington Post: New Sen. Cruz Bill Aims to Counter Chinese Espionage Efforts Within American Universities, https://www.cruz.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=3841
(23) FBI Director Wray says he shares Rubio’s concern with Chinese-run Confucius Institute, http://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2018/02/13/fbi-director-wray-says-he-shares-rubios-concern-with-chinese-run-confucius-institute/
(24) Address of Lhadon Tethong, Director of Tibet Action Institute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXCD05BGVO0
(25) This CCP Official Risked His Life to Defect: Interview with Chen Yonglin, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ErIeAhubAU