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Controversial Confucius Institutes Returning to U.S. Schools Under New Name

FILE - Chinese language teachers talk to a Nigerian student at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos, April 6, 2016. Confucius Institutes in the United States are rebranding and reopening, according to a report by the National Association of Scholars.

Confucius Institutes, the controversial Beijing-backed language and cultural learning centers — most of which were closed throughout the United States after being designated a foreign mission by the State Department — are rebranding and reopening, according to a report by the National Association of Scholars.

Of the 118 Confucius Institutes that once existed in the United States, 104 were closed as of June 21 and four are in the process of shutting down, according to the report.

Of these, “at least 28 have replaced their Confucius Institute with a similar program, and at least 58 have maintained close relationships with their former Confucius Institute partner,” according to the report.

FILE - Undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., May 2, 2018.
FILE - Undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., May 2, 2018.

Perry Link, professor of Chinese language studies at the University of California Riverside, said he was shocked after reading the June 21 report, which updates a March 2018 report.

Link told VOA Mandarin that he was struck first by “how many Confucius Institutes have been shut. I didn’t expect the rate of closures to be so high. Second, they still exist in another way with another name. I think this is expected. I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”

VOA contacted the Chinese embassy in Washington for comment on the rebranded Confucius Institutes but did not receive a response.

The Chinese state-owned Global Times published an article in October 2021 citing the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Germany as saying “China firmly opposes the politicization of academic and cultural exchange activities.”

Important to China

In April 2007, Li Changchun, then chairman of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization under the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said in a report by Xinhua, the Chinese state-run newspaper, that Confucius Institutes were an "important part of the CCP's external propaganda structure.”

Confucius Institutes had many requirements for their partner Western universities, such as confidentiality agreements that meant schools could not disclose the amount of funding Confucius Institutes provided, according to the association report.

Critics saw the institutes as an overseas propaganda machine for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as a tool to monitor and interfere with speeches and activities on campuses. For example, in 2009, North Carolina State University canceled its plan to invite the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to speak on campus after objections by the Confucius Institute.

Ten years later, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would not provide funding for universities hosting Confucius Institutes. The U.S. State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a Chinese foreign mission in the United States, saying, “On August 13, 2020, the Department of State designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS), which serves as the Washington D.C.-based de facto headquarters of the Confucius Institute network, as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China. The opacity of this organization and its state-directed nature are the driving reasons behind this designation.”

Organizations designated as foreign missions must submit reports to the U.S. government about funding, personnel, curriculum and activities that occur in the U.S.

But beginning in July 2020, as U.S. schools were closing the programs even before the State Department’s finding, the Chinese government reorganized and rebranded the Confucius Institutes’ parent department, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, as the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (CLEC). The CLEC also spun off a separate organization, the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF), to fund and oversee Confucius Institutes and many of their replacements, according to Xinghuanet, a state-controlled news outlet.

‘Outflanking maneuver’

Rachelle Peterson, senior research fellow at National Association of Scholars and co-author of the report, said at a June 21 discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation that the closures of the Confucius Institutes is “a story of success because the United States recognized the threat posed by Confucius Institutes and it addressed that threat.”

However, she said, “It's also a story of warning because right now the Chinese government is trying to sidestep those policies. In military terms, this would be called an outflanking maneuver. The Chinese government is betting that if it takes away the name, Confucius Institute, and tweaks the structure of a program, no one will realize that Chinese government influence remains alive and well in American higher education.”

On July 1, 2021, one day after its Confucius Institute closed, the College of William and Mary established the W&M-BNU Collaborative Partnership with Beijing Normal University, according to the school. The Chinese university was the American school’s former Confucius Institute partner, providing the programs the Confucius Institute used to offer. According to Peterson, nothing changed but the name.

U.S. Representative Jim Banks pointed out at the Heritage Foundation event that the Confucius Institutes are also overseen by China’s United Front Work Department, whose mission “is to influence foreigners and foreign institutions and especially those in America. And their work can be seen on college campuses all over the country.”

Link said that although the Confucius Institutes can’t censor students, their influence on educators comes in other ways. “If you are in the Confucius Institute and create some programs with CCP money, would you host a memorial event for the Tiananmen Square Massacre? Of course not. Are there written rules that stop you? No. Did someone above tell you not to? No. It’s self-censorship, it’s psychological.”

Jonathan Sullivan is a China specialist and professor of political science at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. who participated in reviews of the Confucius Institutes in their original form. He told VOA Mandarin in an email that “the ‘scare’ around the Confucius Institutes is exaggerated, and the fears about what they are doing and able to achieve are overblown.”

He said students need to learn Chinese and have Chinese cultural competencies, but the governments in many nations haven’t stepped in to fund academic alternatives to the instruction offered through Confucius Institutes.

“The harsh reality is that Confucius Institutes/Confucius Classrooms stepped up to fulfill a need that governments were not – and they were happy to accept a ‘freebie,’” Sullivan said. “Now that Confucius Institutes have been tainted by wider distaste and suspicion of the Chinese government, this ‘freebie’ now has a cost.”