Under Review: Reevaluating the Confucius Institute at Tufts

On November 18, the New York Times released a five-part article series entitled “China Rules” that overviews the country’s rising power and mounting tensions with the United States. The series begins by commenting that, “[China] didn’t like the West’s playbook, so they wrote their own.”

The Times coverage tells a story that has increasingly come to the forefront of American politics—one that depicts China as an aggressive and authoritarian global challenger. But in turn, China has pushed back against this narrative, and one strategy has become evident on college campuses.


Confucius Institutes, also known as “Hanban,” were first established by the Chinese government in 2004, and are described as “non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries.” Colleges are one of the most popular destinations for Confucius Institutes, which are hosted by more than 500 universities worldwide, with over 100 in the United States.


The reception of Confucius Institutes by college students, administrators, and community members has been mixed, including at Tufts. While some laud them as hubs for cultural exchange, others fear their potential to be used as tools of government-funded propaganda, or even vehicles for espionage.


Political Science Professor Michael Beckley, who researches great power politics and teaches Chinese foreign policy at Tufts, discussed his views on the debate.


“[American universities] of course prize academic freedom, and the Chinese government doesn’t have a very good record of that, so I think it just built on those long-standing suspicions, and then it’s been in the context of this recent downturn in US-China relations,” he said. “I see them more as a propaganda arm, not as a conduit for Chinese spies.”


Nevertheless, the future status of Confucius Institutes at colleges has increasingly come under fire, and many have been disbanded. Some criticisms have come up from as high as the US Congress. Congressman Seth Moulton (MA-06), for example, sent a letter to Tufts President Anthony Monaco last March. He urged the school to dissociate from its branch, the Confucius Institute at Tufts University (CITU), due to the Institute’s reputational tendency to “intimidate academics and twist academic discourse.” Today, CITU, which was established at Tufts in 2015, has been placed under review, in accordance with its agreement coming up for renewal in June 2019.


The review—announced to the Tufts community via email on September 21—is being undertaken by a committee comprised of Provost ad interim Deborah Kochevar, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences Jim Glaser, and other faculty members with relevant regional, linguistic, or legal expertise. Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, members of the committee declined to comment on its proceedings, and instead deferred to Patrick Collins, Tufts’ Director of Public Relations, who spoke to the Observer over email.


“The committee will be looking at the Institute’s current activities, whether they are within the scope of the agreement, the quality of instruction, and the benefits of the Institute’s programming,” he wrote. “We want to weigh the benefits and any potential costs to the Tufts community and the university in general in a number of areas: financial, cultural, educational, reputational, and others.”


Collins added that the committee has consulted government offices and Tufts’ government relations advisors to better understand the climate of US-Sino relations and Confucius Institutes in a national context. They also hosted two meetings in October open to the Tufts community to garner feedback.


But concerns about CITU predate its review. A major worry comes from Confucius Institutions being known to misrepresent actions by the Chinese Government in their teachings of recent history, such as erasing the massacre of pro-Democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.


Liz Bishop, a 2018 alum who took several Chinese language classes at Tufts, spoke about a troubling experience she had with CITU while she was enrolled in Chinese 21 that ultimately led her to stop taking Chinese classes.


Bishop explained that when her Chinese professor unexpectedly went on extended leave, the Chinese program replaced her with the then-director of CITU, Yanfu Fu. Bishop felt the choice was inappropriate considering he was not a member of the Chinese’s program’s faculty and because of the Institute’s reliance on Chinese government funding. She also said that the instructor related inappropriately to the students, making comments about his favorite brand of condoms and saying he thought abortions were immoral.


“They were just not okay things to be saying, especially when you’re in a position of power in a classroom,” Bishop said. She added that while the instructor may not have been reflective of the institute as a whole, he was still an employee, and his appointment seemed unsurprising to her in the context of broader politics she had observed of the Chinese program.


“For example… suggesting that Taiwanese people are distinct from Chinese people is something I’ve gotten push back from in other Chinese classes,” she said. “Which I know is something that has come up in conversations about the Confucius Institutes in other schools.”


The erasure of Taiwanese identity is another concern about the teachings of Confucius Institutes as a whole, as well as their erasure of Hong Kong and Tibetan people. Bishop felt that hearing this kind of inaccurate narrative in the classroom was incredibly frustrating, especially as a Taiwanese-American with a Mandarin speaking family. When she brought her issues with her substitute teacher’s conduct to the attention of the Chinese program, they did not take action.


Bishop, as well as Professor Beckley, both discussed how money can be a complicating factor in evaluating the relationships between universities and Confucius Institutes.


“My parents are literally paying for the Chinese government to teach me Chinese,” Bishop said. “I think that’s really messed up; that’s not what I signed up for… [CITU pays] to be here, they fund events for the Chinese department, that’s why they’re here. It’s money and I think… particularly humanities and language programs don’t have a lot of money.”


Beckley, however, was skeptical that CITU’s financial contributions would be a major factor in the University’s decision.


“When you look at the size of Tufts’ endowment, it’s pretty laughable to think that the few hundred thousand dollars they send is going to cause us to change our library books,” he said.


However, Beckley added that money could create more complicated politics for schools with different financial situations.


“I think for state universities that are dependent on public funding that’s being cut, that could be more of a big issue,” he noted. “Because they might not have a Chinese language program if they can’t bring these Confucius Institutes, and that could affect how they teach Chinese history [and]  Chinese culture. So, if I was at one of those universities, I would be far more concerned, but at a wealthy school like Tufts we’re just not as dependent on their money.”


Ultimately, financial and other questions regarding the Institute must be resolved by the committee. Collins explained that once the committee feels it has gathered sufficient information, it will submit a report of its findings to Provost Kochevar and Dean Glaser for review, and a definitive decision will be made by President Monaco. He added that the committee hopes to turn over its recommendation by the end of the calendar year, but made no indication that they were currently leaning either way.


At the heart of this debate are questions of transparency and freedom of information. According to Beckley, while there is certainly cause for concern surrounding the proliferation of misinformation by Confucius Institutes, he is not particularly worried about it giving way to propaganda goals.


“It gets [students] interested about China, gives them some of the language capabilities,” he said. “[But] I imagine many of them end up working on the American side and trying to improve US-China relationships in some ways at the detriment of Chinese national interests.”


However, he also is not optimistic that Confucius Institutes can effectively be used to bridge the growing schisms of cultural understanding between the US and China while they remain bound to a government dedicated to censorship for the sake of national image.


“The government’s whole purpose of having [Confucius Institutes] is to try to craft an alternative narrative to what Westerners are hearing about China,” he said. “They would have to open up and say, ‘Yeah we’re going to talk about Tiananmen, we’re going to talk about all these human rights abuses openly,’ but then that kind of works at cross purposes with what they’re trying to do.”



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