Just as China celebrated five new Confucius Institutes across the United States, more than 100 professors in the city of Chicago were lobbying for the eviction of the Chinese state-sponsored language centre.
Arguing that the centres indirectly placed schools under Beijing’s grip, 108 professors launched a petition demanding that the University of Chicago break ties with the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban), administrated by Chinese Education Ministry, when their five-year contract expires in September.
The “dubious practice” of allowing Hanban to “have a voice in the research and curriculum”, the professors wrote in the petition, has compromised the academic integrity of the university, and subject its staff members and students to Beijing’s “political constraints on free speech and belief”.
It is not the first time a Confucius Institute has come under fire in the Western academia. Last year, McMaster University in Canada shut it down after it dismissed a teacher who was revealed to be a follower of Falun Gong, which was made illegal by Beijing in 1999.
Despite this, Hanban’s influence has been growing internationally. The institute announced in Los Angeles last Thursday that it would collabourate with the US College Board, a non-profit that designs and hosts college entrance exams, to open five Confucius Institutes (CI) in colleges and 15 Confucius secondary school classrooms in nine different US states this year.
The deputy director-general of Hanban, Wang Yongli, told China Daily that CI was not China’s propaganda tool, as he defended the speeded-up expansion of its global network in 2011.
“The institute focuses its programme on culture and communication,” Wang was quoted as saying. “It avoids ideological content.”
But for the University of Chicago academics, Beijing’s ideology is exactly that: avoiding political taboos.
“My concern is not that the CI is used for active propagandising, but that the normal principles of free speech, open inquiry and politically disinterested scholarship – all of which are crucial for academic integrity – are not obtained in courses offered through the CI,” said the organiser of the petition, Bruce Lincoln, a religion professor.
Established a decade ago, Hanban has set up 440 Confucius Institutes in 120 countries and regions across the globe to promote the study of Chinese language and culture – both areas China is seeking to boost as it experiments with soft power.
CI has been most aggressive in the US, with 100 Confucius Institutes and 356 Confucius Classrooms established in the past 10 years.
The Ivy League and other prestigious higher education institutes – including the University of Chicago – have also jumped onboard. The university signed a five-year agreement with Hanban in late September 2009. The agreement will automatically be extended for another five years unless either party refuses, in writing, three months before the expiry date.
According to a template agreement between Hanban and the host institution, a CI must help provide Chinese-language courses, train Chinese instructors, hold the Chinese Proficiency Test, and organise language and cultural exchanges activities.
The agreement also requires Hanban to share costs with its host institution, on top of providing a US$150,000 start-up fund.
“I regret that our beloved university, which in its proud history had turned down quite a few times government money because we did not want to engage in intellectual labour solely on governmental terms, has now buckled our knees and conscience to a foreign government for a paltry sum,” said Anthony Yu, a retired U of C litreature professor who signed the petition last month.
Unlike foreign-language centres like Germany’s Goethe-Institut and France’s Alliance Fancaise, Confucius Institutes are situated within university precincts – which makes them more controversial, U of C anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote in an article published by The Nation last year.
Another difference is that CI, as its template agreement states, must “respect cultural custom” and “not contravene concerning the laws and regulations” in China, which the petitioners believe do not encourage free inquiry on sensitive issues like human rights, religious freedom in Tibet and the Tiananamen crackdown.
Yu says that during a 2010 CI conference, attended by the Chinese deputy consul-general in San Francisco, he asked if CI instructors would be encouraged to present Chinese perspectives on Tibet to American students.
Yu said the Chinese official “lifted his wine glass” in a toast, saying, “We don’t really encourage that kind of conversation at all.”
Read the latest copy of the petition here: University of Chicago Petition 
The director of CI at Stanford University does not share Yu’s sense of frustration. “CI promotes the understanding of the Chinese language and culture, and that is of benefit to us and to China,” said Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “In none of the academic activities has Hanban sought to restrict our choices.”
Despite a lack of “egregious examples”, Lincoln, the U of C petition organiser, said he believed “evidence from elsewhere makes it clear” that CI instructors were “trained to change the topic, deflect conversation and plead ignorance”.
CI teachers talked about Tiananmen Square as a tourist attraction but steer clear of discussing what happened there on June 4, 1989, Sahlins said. He cited anthropologist Jennifer Huppert’s study on CI self-censorship at a Catholic school in the US West Coast.
“I have no knowledge of teacher training [of such kind],” said political science professor Dali Yang, the founding director of the U of C Confucius Institute, or CIUC.
Yang said they do not offer Chinese language courses. Hanban nominated Chinese instructors to serve as visiting lecturers at the university, which has the right to make the final decision on their recruitment, Yang added.
Yang declined to comment on whether the university had turned down any of Hanban’s nominations. “Hiring issues are sensitive ones,” he said. “I am not at liberty to divulge such details.”
The CIUC focuses on funding “a diverse group” of China-related academic research projects, John Mark Hansen, chair of the CIUC board told the South China Morning Post.
“The best way to advance scholarship and the cause of free inquiry is to use opportunities to engage scholars and citizens abroad, not shut ourselves off from them,” he said.
But Yu was not convinced the research projects were as diverse as the Hansen said. With most of its research projects focusing on China’s economic development, CIUC’s programme shuns politically or culturally sensitive topics, Yu said.
A committee of three has been working since February to review the CIUC’s activities and is consulting stakeholders on whether to renew the agreement.