At U.S. Colleges, Chinese-Financed Centers
Prompt Worries About Academic Freedom
Professors worry about political interference from 61 Confucius Institutes, but there is scant evidence of meddling from China
By Peter Schmidt
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI FOR THE CHRONICLE
COLLEGE PARK, MD.
A LITTLE BIT of China can be found on the University of Maryland’smain campushere,
tucked away in the basement of Hol-zapfel Hall. There, in Room 0134, sits
the university’s Confucius Institute,
where the walls are draped with Chinese etchings and calligraphy, scenes
from the Beijing Opera play out on a
large computer screen, and people sit
around a table learning Mandarin.
The institute focuses on teaching
Chinese language and culture. But it
also wants students to feel good about
China as a nation.
Like the 60 other Confucius Institutes that have cropped up at colleges
around the United States since 2004,
the Maryland facility was established
with the blessing, and the money, of
the People’s Republic of China. The
Chinese government continues to give
it about $100,000 in financial support
annually, and to pay the instructors
from China who teach there. Such arrangements allow colleges to provide
a lot more instruction and programming related to China.
Some faculty members and experts
on Chinese politics worry, however,
that the rapid proliferation of the institutes poses a threat to academic freedom and shared governance because
of the way they involve the Chinese
government in colleges’ affairs. Professors at
the University of Chicago protested its decision to open an institute there, and University
of Pennsylvania faculty members cited concerns about Chinese-government involvement
in opting not to seek to establish one.
The institutes “perform a propaganda function,” says June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of
political science at the University of Miami
and a former member of the Congressionally
established U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which monitors the
implications of trade agreements between the
“It would be stupid,” Ms. Dreyer
says, “for the Chinese government to
spend money on something that did
not further its interests.”
David Prager Branner, an adjunct
associate professor of East Asian lan-
guages and culture at Columbia Uni-
versity who has studied the Confucius
Institutes, says he fears that colleges
with the institutes can become depen-
dent on Chinese funds and thus sus-
ceptible to pressure from the Chinese
government to stifle speech it oppos-
es, such as expressions of support for
Tibetan or Taiwanese independence.
Foreign-language programs at Amer-
ican colleges, he says, are often so
starved for resources that “they are
not in a position to reject money, no
matter where it comes from, or with
Classes on the Mandarin
language, like one at the U. of
Maryland (above), are a basic
offering of Confucius Institutes
Chuan Sheng Liu (left), a physics
professor, directs Maryland’s
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI FOR THE CHRONICLE
that are now home to Confucius Institutes.
There, a court held last year that Tel Aviv
University, which houses a Confucius Insti-
tute, had violated freedom of expression by
succumbing to pressure from the Chinese
Embassy to cut short an art exhibition de-
picting Chinese-government oppression of
the Falun Gong movement. The judge in the
case concluded that the university’s dean of
students, Yoav Ariel, had feared that the art
exhibit would jeopardize Chinese support for
its Confucius Institute and other educational
activities on the campus, according to reports
in the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and The Je-
Colleges With Confucius Institutes in the United States
Arizona State U.
Cleveland State U.
Community College of Denver
George Mason U.
Indiana U.-Purdue U. Indianapolis
Kennesaw State U.
Miami Dade College
Miami U. of Ohio
Michigan State U.
Middle Tennessee U.
New Mexico State U.
North Carolina State U.
Portland State U.
Rutgers U. at New Brunswick
San Diego State U.
Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and cultural leader, speak on their campuses. Although the University of Washington played host to the Dalai Lama
over Chinese objections in 2008, it
came under fire for taking steps to ensure that he would not be asked questions dealing with the autonomy of
Tibet or China’s crackdown on unrest
there. In Canada, the University of
Calgary’s decision to award an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama last
year was followed by its removal from
the Chinese government’s list of universities it classifies as accredited.
Since the first Confucius Institute
in the United States was established
here at Maryland, in late 2004, however, there have been no complaints
of the institutes’ getting in the way of
academic freedom on American campuses or of Chinese officials’ using
their government’s financial support
for the institutes as leverage to get
American colleges to squelch speech
The Maryland institute has encountered “no interference and no pressure
at all” from the Chinese government
or from China’s Nankai University,
which sponsors the institute, says Chuan Sheng Liu, a professor of physics who has served as director of
Maryland’s Confucius Institute since
“We are an American university,
Mary E. Gallagher, an associate professor
of political science and director of the Center
for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says the Confucius Institute
there has been free to cover some topics “that
are controversial and sensitive in China,” such
as how its Uighur minority—members of which
violently clashed with government forces last
year—are depicted in the performing arts.
Although the Confucius Institutes “are not
going to exist in a political vacuum,”
being influenced by political considerations “is a far cry from trying to
infringe on free speech,” says Robert
A. Saunders, an assistant professor of
history and politics at the State University of New York’s Farmingdale
State College, who has researched
China’s efforts to promote its culture. The Chinese government has
probably concluded that it reaps so
much benefit from the Confucius Institutes, he says, that doing anything
that might jeopardize their image
and their acceptance by foreign governments and institutions “is just not
Risks and Restraint
The only place where such fears
have been realized is Israel, one of
nearly 90 nations around the world
So far, China’s effort to promote it-
self through Confucius Institutes has
met with remarkable success. Since
the first one opened in Seoul, South
Korea, in late 2004, more than 280
have been established around the
world, according to the Beijing-based
agency that oversees them, the Office