US and Canadian academics demand changes to Confucius Institutes

American scholars join Canadian counterparts in calling for changes at Beijing-backed centres that would enshrine academic freedom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 9:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 3:16am


University professors in the US have joined Canadian counterparts in urging universities to cut ties with Confucius Institutes unless the agreements that bring them to campus are re-worked to guarantee academic freedom.

A report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said universities "have sacrificed the integrity of the university and its academic staff" by allowing the Chinese government to supervise curriculum and staff at the institutes it has established on more than 100 North American campuses to promote Chinese culture and language.

"Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities," the report by the association's committee on academic freedom and tenure said.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers raised the same issues in December following an instructor's human-rights complaint alleging discrimination based on her belief in Falun Gong, a spiritual group that has been banned in China.

The complaint led McMaster University in Ontario to close its Confucius Institute last year after the complaint was settled through mediation.

The Beijing headquarters for the Confucius Institutes, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban, did not respond to requests for comment. However, the People's Daily, ran an article on Friday rejecting the AAUP report's claims, quoting foreign institutions from Germany to Thailand who called them unfounded.

When reached for comment, directors at several Confucius Institutes in the United States also defended the institutes, saying the AAUP did not understand how they worked.

"The university comes first, and then the Confucius Institute, which must operate within the rules of the university," said Xu Zaocheng, director of the institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The Chinese "fund these activities, but they are not controlling them", said Stephen Dunnett, chairman of the bi-national committee that oversees the University at Buffalo institute.

"If they came here and said, 'We will give you this money but we're going to control it: we're going to pick the curriculum, we're going to pick the teachers by ourselves, and we're going to teach or not teach what we want' ... what US university would ever do that?" he said.

With more than 400 already spread across more than 100 regions and countries, China expected to have 500 Confucius Institutes by next year, programme officials have said, along with 1,000 Confucius classrooms in primary and secondary schools.

Universities link with a Chinese school to establish the programmes, with the host school providing space and an administrator in exchange for US$100,000 or more yearly from Hanban, as well as text books.

Teachers receive a monthly salary from the Chinese government of between US$1,500 and US$2,100.

"We have free speech on campus, and to say these teachers are trying to indoctrinate the 19-year-old, 20-year-old students at the University of Chicago — I personally have found it to be ridiculous," said Dali Yang, Confucius Institute director at the University of Chicago, where more than 100 professors have been lobbying for eviction.

The AAUP recommended universities cut ties unless agreements with Hanban were rewritten to give the universities full control over teachers, curriculum and texts, and Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedoms as other university faculty.