BEIJING HAS NEVER BEEN SUBTLE about its purposes for providing Chinese teachers, textbooks, scholarships, grants, and even buildings to foreign universities. In 2009, former propaganda czar Li Changchun described Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.” The founder of the Confucius Institute, Liu Yandong, was formerly the head of the United Front Work Department, which works to win over hearts and minds overseas.
While other countries also fund and staff language and cultural centers overseas, such as France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are unique in that they are located inside existing colleges and universities, they vastly outnumber other language centers, and they answer to China’s government.
The institutes operate under the supervision of the Chinese Language Council International—known as Hanban—which is governed by the heads of 12 Chinese government ministries, including the State Press and Publication Administration (the propaganda department) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hanban writes the textbooks, hires teachers, trains teachers, and appoints the director of each institute. Each year the Chinese government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to open and fund these Confucius Institutes, money critics believe would be much better spent improving dilapidated Chinese schools domestically.
The offer of China-funded programs that could boost enrollment at struggling universities is too good for many to turn down. Beyond the monetary incentives—typically $150,000 in startup funds and $100,000 in subsequent years—schools with good relations with the Chinese government can attract more full-tuition-paying Chinese exchange students.
The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004, and since then, China has opened more than 500 institutes in universities around the world as well as 1,076 Confucius Classrooms in K-12 schools. The United States has the most Confucius Institutes, with more than 100, while Africa has more than 40.
The influence of Confucius Institutes on school campuses goes beyond the classroom: In 2008 Tel Aviv University officials shut down a student art exhibit depicting the oppression of Falun Gong in China out of fear of losing Confucius Institute support. In the 2017 documentary In the Name of Confucius, Confucius Institute students are seen singing a song glorifying Chairman Mao Zedong. Director Doris Liu said it was the same song she sang as a child in a government-run school in China and that her mother sang as a student as well.
“[CI’s] ultimate purpose isn’t academic freedom, so the purpose of the Confucius Institute is fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the university: to have free and open inquiry into different questions,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order.
The University of Chicago was the first U.S. school to close its Confucius Institute in 2014 after more than a hundred professors signed a petition. Its main opponent, Professor Emeritus Marshall Sahlin, argued that by hosting Confucius Institutes, schools “become engaged in the political and propaganda efforts of a foreign government.” Penn State shut down its institute soon after.
Last April, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a 177-page report examining 12 Confucius Institutes in New York and New Jersey and found Chinese teachers faced pressures to present China in a positive light and to avoid sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The result is “a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country.” The institutes also lack transparency: Contracts and funding arrangements between U.S. universities and Hanban are rarely made public.
These contracts stipulate that universities must avoid “tarnish[ing] the reputation of the Confucius Institutes,” a vague condition that could be twisted to mean whatever the Chinese government wants, according to the report. If a school does “tarnish” CI’s reputation, it would lose funds and could face unspecified “legal action.” The paper recommended that all universities close their Confucius Institutes.
In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced the FBI was investigating some Confucius Institutes, which the FBI believes are also used for espionage and to keep tabs on Chinese students. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., sent letters to schools in their states asking them to close their Confucius Institutes. The University of West Florida said it would not renew its contract with Hanban next year.
Three Republican lawmakers (Rubio, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Rep. Joe Wilson) proposed a bill in March that would require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents with the Department of Justice and disclose their funding and the scope of their activities. The proposal would also require schools to disclose funding or in-kind gifts from foreign sources worth more than $50,000. “The goal is transparency by the foreign agents themselves and also by the universities,” Wilson said in a statement. “The American people need to know that they are being provided propaganda.”
THE SITUATION IN AFRICA differs from the West and is more complicated: Confucius Institutes are many students’ only way to learn Chinese, which can unlock more job opportunities for them once they graduate. Plus Chinese-backed scholarships are often the only opportunity for African students to study abroad. Confucius Institutes thus have a greater influence in Africa than in the West: African universities can’t afford to damage their relationship with Beijing or kick out the institutes.
China’s presence in Africa is growing as the world’s second-largest economy invests in infrastructure, sells cheap goods, and starts multinational companies in Africa. Thus it only makes sense for college students there to learn the Chinese language and culture and take advantage of scholarships that allow African students to study at top Chinese universities. The number of African students in China has grown from 2,000 in 2003 to nearly 50,000 in 2015.
For Nathaniel, studying at Soochow University in Jiangsu was an exciting opportunity to meet new people and see what life was like outside Nigeria. “How do they think and what do they think about Nigerians?” Nathaniel wondered. Once there, he admired how much Chinese people seemed to value their language and culture. He learned that Chinese people cared about punctuality and greeted each other with the phrase “Chi fan le ma?” which means “Have you eaten?” He found the tones in Mandarin similar to the tones of his Yoruba language.