Global Tuidang Center



Controversy Surrounds Confucius Institutes at American Universities


Gary Feuerberg  |  Epoch Times

Doris Liu, director of the film “In the Name of Confucius,” discusses her documentary on Confucius Institutes at the Alliance Defending Freedom, April 26. (Gary Feuerberg/ The Epoch Times)

WASHINGTON—Since 2005, the Chinese government has been funding Confucius Institutes (CI) in the United States—a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. For example, it gave $4 million to Stanford University as a onetime gift. What is behind the largesse? Does the China regime just want to promote Chinese culture or is there something more insidious about its intentions?
To address this question, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) commissioned a report released in April, “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.” NAS, consisting primarily of current or former university professors, describes itself as an independent association seeking to foster “intellectual freedom and academic excellence in American higher education.”
The report’s author, Rachelle Peterson, presented her findings at an event hosted by Alliance Defending Freedom on April 26.
In recent years, faculty at universities hosting Confucius Institutes often voice concerns such as the university’s Confucius Institute was established in secrecy, is beyond faculty control, and competes with their modern language program. It’s also reasonable to ask about the intellectual costs of an arrangement that grants significant authority to a party outside the university.
The University of Chicago in 2014 closed its Institute after five years, soon followed by the University of Pennsylvania. Several scholars of China have written books and articles critical of the program. The faculty at the University of Chicago objected to an external party hiring and training teachers. The faculty was also not comfortable with the university’s ties to the Hanban, an agency of the Chinese communist regime, and the constraints on free speech and belief that is to be expected from the Chinese Party-State.
To better understand the role of Confucius Institutes in American higher education, Peterson, who is director of Research Projects at NAS, examined 12 Confucius Institutes—two in New Jersey and 10 in New York. It was a challenge to conduct the research. Most of the CI’s she studied were not very forthcoming and in some instances, very hostile to her research.

Following the report’s discussion, the U.S. premiere of the documentary, “In the Name of Confucius,”  was shown. It reenacts the personal story of former CI Mandarin teacher and Falun Gong practitioner Sonia Zhao. She exposed secrets of the CI program that led to the first closure of a Confucius Institute in North America. The film also profiles contentious scenes taken at Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), as it debated the CI program. Shown also were boisterous public protests in Canada for and against CIs.

CI Growing

The CI program is managed within an agency of China’s Ministry of Education: The Office of Chinese Languages Council International, usually called the Hanban. It operates 103 Confucius Institutes in the United States, nearly all out of universities. As well, it operates Confucius Classrooms (CC) at 501 primary and secondary schools in the United States. These 604 entities are the most of any nation, and represent 38 percent of China’s 1,579 CIs and CCs worldwide. The 501 U.S. CCs represents nearly half (47 percent) of all CCs worldwide. Other countries which have high numbers of education outposts are UK, Australia, Italy, South Korea, Thailand, Germany, Russia, Japan, and France.
China’s overseas investment in CIs and CCs is growing. In the United States, the number increased 35 percent in the last year.


Peterson found that Chinese teachers felt pressured to avoid certain topics that are censored in China, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and criticism of Communist Party legitimacy. Teachers within Confucius Institutes, who are hired, paid by, and report to the Hanban lack formal academic freedom, states Peterson. Even working in America, they can be removed for violating Chinese law, such as using speech censored in China.
Some CI instructors told Peterson that if the subject of Tiananmen Square came up, they would describe its beautiful architecture.
Doris Liu, director and producer of “In the Name of Confucius,” said that McMaster University told a Tibetan student not to show a Tibetan flag to represent her identity in an annual activity to celebrate the various nationalities on campus. Liu determined that the request originated from the CI director who asked the activity coordinator to tell the Tibetan student not to show the Tibetan flag.
Peterson wrote that local observers at North Carolina State University said that the Confucius Institute was responsible for rescinding an invitation to the Dali Lama to speak on campus in 2009.
In 2008, Tel Aviv University shut down a student display on the treatment of Falun Gong adherents in China. The students sued and the court found that the university acted under pressure from a dean who feared harming the university’s CI.
Some American professors told Peterson that they felt pressured to self-censor. A good example of the way self-censorship works was given by Julie Wang, Binghamton University’s Asian and Asian American Studies Librarian.
The Hanban had provided a large display of Chinese opera costumes that were housed in wooden cases with glass doors. Wang, who was born in China, initially identified the display on placards as costumes and supplies for “Peking Opera,” which is the original historical term and remains the preferred terminology. She notes that the National Performing Peking Opera still uses “Peking Opera.”
But the Confucius Institute insisted on “Beijing Opera,” the term preferred by the Hanban. A compromise was worked out to use “Beijing (Peking) Opera.”
The lesson she learned in this episode and others was to avoid conflict: “I self-censored myself,” she said, noting that university faculty regularly works with the Hanban and she didn’t want to make it “awkward” for them.

Hiring Discrimination

In 2011, Sonia Zhao, who was an instructor at the McMaster University Confucius Institute, told McMaster authorities that she had been coerced into signing the Hanban contract that doesn’t allow employment of Falun Gong practitioners.
At the moment she was presented with the contract, it was too late to back out, according to the documentary. She felt pressured and feared persecution if she admitted to her religious practice. Her mother had been imprisoned for two years for being a practitioner.
Falun Gong was a very popular spiritual practice that was banned in China in 1999 out of concern that it threatened loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. The adherents have been especially targeted by the regime, which detains hundreds of thousands of practitioners, subjects them to various tortures, and, in some cases, kills them to harvest their organs.
McMaster University, which is a public research university located in Ontario, Canada, found this hiring discrimination that excludes Falun Gong adherents as unacceptable, and subsequently terminated their relationship with the Hanban and closed its Confucius Institute.

Lack of Transparency

None of the 12 Confucius Institutes Peterson examined would disclose their contract with the Hanban or its funding arrangements. NAS had to file requests under Freedom of Information Law in New York and New Jersey in order to obtain the contracts from eight of the public universities among the 12 in the group studied.
In general, with notable exceptions, there was evasiveness and sometimes hostility toward the inquiries Peterson made for the NAS report. Only at two of the 12 institutes did the director agree to meet with her.
The CI director at Binghamton University agreed to a meeting, and wrote her to “feel free to let me know if you need any assistance in your visit,” but suddenly canceled two days later, and also canceled the meeting Peterson had scheduled with members of the CI staff. Nor would the latter respond to follow-up requests for comment.
When Peterson arrived at the Institute, she found it locked with the lights off. That this situation was very unusual was indicated by a CI board member who expressed surprise that the CI was closed.
Director Liu found that oftentimes, “the CI host institutions didn’t want to participate in the film or talk about the controversies surrounding the Confucius Institutes. Remarkably, none of them seemed to be worried about the controversies; rather they boasted about their close relationship with the Chinese government.”

Money Incentive

Peterson raises the concern that American universities are becoming financially dependent on China. “Typically, new Confucian Institutes receive $150,000 in start-up funds from the Hanban, and $100,000 in subsequent years.” The Hanban also typically pays and houses each of the teachers. However, several administrators involved with the Confucius Institute in their university downplayed the idea that Beijing is providing tons of money. Further, the host university must provide in-kind contributions, “such as office space, furnishings, computers, and staff time.”
However, the number of Chinese students coming to a university and the extensive relationships that it has in China would be jeopardized if the Confucius Institute were closed. “Several of the Confucian Institutes contracts we examined included plans for student and faculty exchanges, scholarships for American students to study in China, and other incentives,” Peterson writes.
Confucius Institutes play a key role in attracting full-tuition paying Chinese students, which become very attractive for universities in search of income, writes Peterson. She cites figures from the Institute of International Education that show that the number of Chinese students enrolled in the United States during the 2015-2016 school year—328,547—was a 525 percent increase from 2005-2006, and represents 31.5 percent of all foreign students in the U.S.
Using sad photos of impoverished children in very primitive schools in rural China, the documentary questions the motivation of the China communist regime spending billions of dollars annually to educate people overseas.

Soft Power

Peterson sees no need to prove that China is exercising “soft power”—a term invented by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye—by its expansion of CIs. It’s obvious that securing a relationship with American universities, including Stanford and Columbia, “boosts China’s image on the world stage.” She adds, “It is naïve to think that China’s multimillion dollar investment in American education stems from pure generosity.”
Peterson quotes Li Changchun, head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, who said in 2009 that Confucius Institutes are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
Liu said that on the Confucius Institute online class, an animated video refers to the Korean War as “the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.” She said that the video praises the heroic Communist Party  “In one Canadian Confucius Institute, students were taught to sing songs that incite hatred towards the Communist Party’s enemies,” she said.

Help end Communism world wide. Sign the End CCP Petition at