Interview with a Confucius Institute director at a US university

22 June 2015

Over the past year especially but for even longer than that, there has been a lot of debate about Confucius Institutes.

Run by the Hanban (汉办, the colloquial abbreviation for the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language), Confucius Institutes are more often than not “embedded” in foreign universities or formed in collaboration with other educational entities such as school districts. Since the Hanban is a Chinese government agency, with its funding coming from the Chinese government, there has been criticism that such an arrangement actually does or potentially could compromise academic freedom and freedom of expression at universities and other educational institutions hosting Confucius Institutes.

There have so far been few actual publicly reported examples of the presence of a Confucius Institute infringing academic freedom or freedom of expression, but the argument goes that it is made clear that Confucius Institutes should in their programming avoid issues, events, activities and people that the Chinese government deems “sensitive”. Foremost on this list are Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, Uighurs, Falun Gong and political dissidents. Some controversial incidents involving CIs appear to have made some actual and potential CI partners more wary than in the past.

By the same token, just as the number of reported examples of actual infringement of academic freedom or freedom of expression due to the presence of Confucius Institutes at universities is low, you would also be hard-pressed to see Confucius Institutes organizing or promoting events or activities that may have as a result expression of critical views of the Chinese Communist Party or discussion of democracy and human rights in China. Some high-profile organizations such as the American Association of University Professors have called on the over 100 US universities with CIs to renegotiate their contracts with them.

Most Confucius Institute programming appears to be primarily cultural and linguistic in nature. Whether this constitutes pernicious influence is debatable. Many argue that the Communist Party is a dictatorship that has a terrible human rights record and imperial policies such as the occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan. It uses the relatively anodyne Confucius Institutes to exert “soft power”. They project an image of the Chinese government as benign and legitimize dictatorial rule.

Others will say CIs are little different from Goethe-Instituts or Alliance Française. It’s also noted that US universities over the years have collaborated with and received substantial funding from US government agencies for a wide variety of programs, often related to defense and intelligence, as well as with corporations, and that this sort of cooperation could also be said to influence academic freedom.

Then again, CIs are the only large-scale program funded by a foreign government that I know of present at such a large number of universities and facilitated by formal cooperation agreements between the universities and an agency of the foreign government.

There have been several highly publicized closures of CIs recently. In September 2014, the University of Chicago severed its relationship with the Hanban. In October 2014, the Toronto school board decided to sever its ties to a Confucius Institute. Tibet support groups have started a campaign against Confucius Institutes and recently announced that the Stuttgart Media University decided to end its Confucius Institute program.

In the public debate about Confucius Institutes, I have noticed few voices of actual CI directors. For the most part, either people aren’t interested in hearing from them or they decide to keep their heads low. Equally, there have been relatively few Chinese voices. In China File’s excellent “conversation” on CIs, of the 24 participants, only five currently are or formerly were involved in running Confucius Institutes, and only one of those is from a Chinese background. The latter plus one other are only two out of the 24 participants from Chinese backgrounds. Also striking is that the conversation includes no one from groups actively campaigning to close CIs.

I recently asked the director of a Confucius Institute at a US university for an interview, offering to keep the director’s identity anonymous. The director graciously agreed. The director has run the CI at the director’s university for a number of years.

What does your Confucius Institute actually do?

We offer Chinese language classes and academic lectures about China on our campus; we organize events and activities to celebrate Chinese culture on our campus and in our community; we have an extensive k-12 outreach program and work closely with school districts and schools to provide regularly teacher training and help them with their curriculum development.

How does it function?

Our CI is an integral part of the university and it functions under all necessary rules and regulations of the university. It has one faculty director, assisted by a full-time coordinator and a Chinese codirector sent by our [mainland Chinese] partner university.

What do you regard as its benefits?

We provide invaluable information about China in the US at the grass-root level, which surely helps American people understand China and its culture firsthand. The services we provide for our university, community and public schools are indispensable.

Do you see any drawbacks in the way it is run or what it does?

The bureaucracy at Hanban is often frustrating; and they are not very good at listening to us for specific advices in their ways of running the CI programs.

Have you yourself ever felt yourself to be under any political pressure, whether direct and explicit or indirect and implicit?


What sorts of things go on / are discussed at Confucius Institute conferences?

Usually about how to run the CI more effectively, both at the grand ideological level and at the specific logistic level.

What do you think of the debate about Confucius Institutes?

I think the debate is helpful in airing the issues involved; as in any project, let alone the one in such a scale, debates are always helpful and healthy.

What are some of the better and worse points that have been made?

The better point is the potential threat to intellectual freedom, and the worse point is the ignorance and bias in stating that all Cis are propaganda machines for the Chinese government.

Do you think there are any prevalent misunderstandings of Confucius Institutes?

Yes, definitely. The prevalent misunderstanding is that since the CIs are funded by the Chinese government, they are naturally and logically branches of Chinese governments, and hence their main mission is to promote Chinese government’s agenda. This is nothing but ignorance. The directors are from various backgrounds and some have their own principles in running their CIs. I state again that personally I have never come under any political pressure from the Chinese side in running our CI. Is there any unconscious self-censorship? Yes; I do not go out of my way to antagonize the Chinese government by organizing certain sensitive events, but such self-censorship exists everywhere when one party receives funding from a sponsor: it is hard to imagine that anyone receiving grants from the Gates Foundation, for example, will spend his/her money trying to prove that the Foundation is a fraud. My own principle is: I will never be an organ of the Chinese government, but I will not deliberately provoke the Chinese government either. I know this entails some compromises, but I do believe that for the greater good that we have been able to do for the mutual understanding between the two most powerful countries in the world, these compromises are necessary and worth making. One final point: the CIs are also platforms where we can let the Chinese side know how the rest of the world functions. In the past few years we have been very successful in making the Chinese side aware that some of their behaviors are simply unacceptable at an international stage or context. So, by getting involved with the CIS, we are also introducing Western ideas to the Chinese, and this side of the story has not been told in the current debate.

What are your views about the political situation in China now?

Frustrating because at the official level nothing has been changed, and in some ways the ideological control is even tighter, although at the mass level people have become more sophisticated, and sadly, cynical.

How have your views changed over the last twenty-six years?

Not very much. I still believe in the values that I fought for in the past, such as freedom of speech, democracy, and equality.

Do you think your views have been affected by your position as head of a Confucius Institute?

No; here I must state that my running of our CI is very much affected by my stated values in the previous passage.

What insights into the way the Chinese government operates have you gained from being a director?

That it craves to be respected by the world, that it loves the pomp and vanity of being the center of the world’s attention; but it is also learning, perhaps gradually, that in order to be a world leader it must also play by the rules of the world.

You have opportunities to meet regularly with other Confucius Institute directors. Based on your interactions with them, would you say your views are fairly typical? If not, in what way not? Do other CI directors express reservations about CIs or about particular aspects of CIs? Would you say there is much critical discussion of CIs amongst CI directors?

I can’t say that my views are typical, but I know for sure that many CI directors share my frustrations with the Hanban. Believe it or not, in all these years I have not made many friends with other directors and we certainly don’t talk about our views regarding the Chinese government and politics. I would guess that my views and stances can at best represent half of the directors.

Most CI programs are “embedded” within foreign universities. Do you think it would be better for CIs to exist independently of foreign universities, especially given the fact that the primary foci of CI appear to be linguistic and cultural rather than, strictly speaking, scholarly?

If the CIs are located outside university campuses, they will lose a lot of their clout and prestige, which is what the Chinese government wants. I personally think this is a smart move strategically. Given the lack of funds and support of many US universities, they (at least the majority of them) have eagerly embraced the CIs. Of course, this is also what has caused the most controversies.

Recently there have been some campaigns by Tibet support groups and others to get universities and school districts to stop their cooperation with Confucius Institutes. Last year, Toronto school district decided to cease its CI contract, and just recently, Stuttgart Media University in Germany is reported to have done the same. What do you think of these campaigns to close CIs?

I think they are short-sighted; I firmly believe that engagement is better than hostility when it comes to China, which, like it or not, is on its way to become a world power.


22 June 2015

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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