A white woman holds up a drawing of a plant next to a Chinese woman sitting at a table together

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, Virginia, on May 2, 2018. 

Credit:

Matthew Pennington/AP

Many countries have centers in the US that promote their cultures and languages. But the Confucius Institutes, launched by China in 2004, are embedded within US universities. The Chinese government provides funding for at least 67 Confucious Institutes in the US — and in some cases, it has a say in appointing teachers and choosing curriculum. 

Some activists and academics say that a foothold on US campuses has allowed Chinese officials to surveil Chinese dissidents and suppress discussion of topics China considers controversial, such as Uighurs, Taiwan, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. And amid rising tensions between the US and China, the US State Department has suddenly escalated its rhetoric about Confucius Institutes. 

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“It's been really difficult to have the Chinese government basically represented on campus, and forwarding, in many cases, direct propaganda on behalf of the authoritarian regime in Beijing."

Lhadon Tethong, director, Tibet Action Institute

“It's been really difficult to have the Chinese government basically represented on campus, and forwarding, in many cases, direct propaganda on behalf of the authoritarian regime in Beijing,” said Lhadon Tethong, a Canadian Tibetan who directs the Tibet Action Institute

Tethong has been helping students organize against Confucius Institutes for years. They successfully lobbied the University of Massachusetts Boston to close its Confucius Institute in 2019.

“Since the Russian influence in the last US election, I think people understand more that foreign governments can actually influence hearts and minds in the United States in a way that can have meaningful and perhaps long-lasting and damaging results,” Tethong says.

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But even Tethong and others in the movement against the Confucius Institutes have been surprised by the recent dramatic escalation in the State Department’s stance on the issue. 

“It's almost head-spinning how quickly things are happening,” Tethong says. 

Last month the State Department designated the Confucius Institute US Center in DC a foreign mission, requiring it to report its activities and funding. Then, last week, Fox News host Lou Dobbs asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo how many Confucius Institutes there will be by the end of the year. 

“I think that everyone’s coming to see the risk associated with [Confucius Institutes] and the recruitment of spies and collaborators inside these institutions. I think these institutions can see that and I’m hopeful that we will get them all closed out by the end of this year.”

Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, US State Department

“I hope the answer’s zero, Lou,” Pompeo said. “I think that everyone’s coming to see the risk associated with them and the recruitment of spies and collaborators inside these institutions. I think these institutions can see that, and I’m hopeful that we will get them all closed out by the end of this year.” 

It’s not clear what power Pompeo has to make that happen. Edward McCord, professor emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, says the US government has no evidence of undue Chinese influence on campuses. He helped set up the GW Confucius Institute. 

“Their rationale is all wrong. ... They talked about them being propaganda in the classroom, you know, a malign influence on campuses. There's just no proof of that whatsoever. I think they just wanted to do something anti-Chinese.”

Edward McCord, professor emeritus, George Washington University

“Their rationale is all wrong,” he says of the Trump administration. “They talked about them being propaganda in the classroom, you know, a malign influence on campuses. There's just no proof of that whatsoever. I think they just wanted to do something anti-Chinese.”

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That’s a common theory. 

“The discourse about Confucius Institutes changed from a question of intellectual freedom to espionage,” says University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins, who was one of the early objectors to the Confucius Institutes, and whose activism led his school to close its Institute in 2014. “And this became a right-wing American cause.”

And while Sahlins agrees that Confucius Institutes should close, he says closing at the behest of the US government is problematic. 

“[Universities] are letting the American government interfere in the curriculum about what can be taught ... which is exactly the same kind of totalitarian relationship of the state to the institutions that the Chinese have.”

Marhall Sahlins, professor, University of Chicago

“[Universities] are letting the American government interfere in the curriculum about what can be taught,” he says, “which is exactly the same kind of totalitarian relationship of the state to the institutions that the Chinese have.” 

The spokesman of the Confucius Institute US Center in DC — the one that’s been designated a foreign mission — says this is all a misunderstanding. 

“People are throwing out these accusations, but a quick fact check shows that it's just not the case,” says Erik Eging, who also speaks from personal experience — he took classes at George Mason University’s Confucius Institute in Virginia, before graduating in 2018.

“There have been programs that featured the Dalai Lama at universities that housed Confucius Institutes. At no point did the Confucius Institutes try to intercede or pressure them not to hold these events. There's been Confucius Institute events that cover topics like Tibet or other things that might seem critical to the Chinese government.”

Erik Eging, spokesman, Confucius Institute US Center, Washington, DC

“There have been programs that featured the Dalai Lama at universities that housed Confucius Institutes. At no point did the Confucius Institutes try to intercede or pressure them not to hold these events. There's been Confucius Institute events that cover topics like Tibet or other things that might seem critical to the Chinese government.” 

So Eging says students across the US shouldn’t be deprived of classes they wouldn’t otherwise have access to in their education.

“It's just very tragic that [these kinds] of misplaced frustrations are going after a language program instead of being applied to the areas that there are disagreements between our two countries,” he says, adding that people need to be able to communicate with one another — regardless of their differences or disagreements.

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