Higher Education

Patrick B. McGuigan | June 17, 2020

Scholars focus on Confucius Institutes

Patrick B. McGuigan

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently sponsored, “China, the American Academy and the National Interest: A Virtual Panel Discussion.” Three American scholars and an academic speaking from Europe parsed thorny issues, relating substantive reasons for concerns—which ranged from merely serious to profound—about so-called “Confucius Institutes” on U.S. campuses.

While the NAS panel is likely the most thorough recent treatment readily accessible to non-specialists, the event came in a broader context. Even advocates of continued economic and academic engagement with the mainland now seem to wonder about the significant U.S. campus presence of institutes guided directly by an arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma City has long worked to counter mainland Chinese “propaganda under the guise of cultural education.” Just days ago, U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern of Tulsa affirmed existing laws requiring financial disclosure of CCP cash, but added there are “currently no laws that require individual professors and departments to disclose [CCP] funding directly to the American public.” 

American policy analysts, public officials, academics and scattered journalists are devoting new attention to the role of the Peoples’ Republic of China on U.S. campuses. CCP “United Fronts” influence governments around the world through sheer economic clout via many avenues.

Factors often not clarified in the western media include CCP-financed efforts to steer U.S. academics away from critical looks at the mainland’s leverage through financial gifts funneled into the campus Confucius Institutes still operating.

The NAS focus is outlined this way: “Many American universities and academics have developed alarmingly close ties to the Chinese government and the state arms of the Chinese Communist Party. High-profile arrests of prominent U.S. academics have taken place across the country when information surfaced that they were taking millions of dollars in under-the-table funding from China. This raises urgent questions surrounding higher education and American national security.”

The website of the University of Oklahoma’s Confucius Institute lays out a benign-sounding presence in Norman, with a branch office in Tulsa: “Established in 2006, the Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma (OUCI) seeks to support Oklahoma educators in their efforts to teach the Chinese language, and to assist Oklahoma businesses that wish to do business in the Chinese speaking world.”

Ongoing OU programs have in-person and online aspects, including language instruction, international programs with an emphasis on Asia, and travel to China for selected students and teachers:

“Under the direct leadership of top officials from both universities, and with support from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the business community, and the Chinese Consulate in Houston, OUCI works closely with the local school districts to provide statewide support for Chinese language instruction at the K-16 level. In addition, OUCI works closely with OU’s College of Continuing Education, as well as organizations which promote the development of the U.S. - China [Relationship] to provide credit and non - credit educational programs for the community.”

An OU spokesman recently said the university has been in the process of quietly closing its Confucius Institute since April.

The trio of panelists for the NAS event included Steven Mosher (Population Research Institute), Jonaas Parello-Plesner (Alliance of Democracies Foundation; non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund), and Sarah Cook (China specialist for Freedom House).

Their 85-minute presentation provided ample time for them and moderator Rachelle Peterson of the NAS to distill the complexities of issues at hand.

Concerning Confucius Institute language programs, Mosher observed, “If you can control language, of course, … you can control how issues are framed, you can control the narrative, you can rewrite history. [Language] is a tool with a thousand uses.”

He stressed that all CIs use simplified language instruction. That is problematic because international scholarship and discourse (even newspapers) remain traditional for Hong Kong and Taiwan universities and for specialists around the world. Simplified Chinese characters do not allow for nuance or precision in translation and understanding.

Cook shared stories of apparent self-censorship, and instances of more direct control over instructors. (All Confucius Institute instructors must be approved by the CCP and the mainland government.)

Parello-Plesner spoke from Paris in notably moderate tones, encouraging U.S. policymakers “to avoid a China Scare.” Yet, he explicitly said new steps are needed to “assure that the CCP does not have inordinate influence” in western institutions of Higher Education.

A somber observation from Moshser came near the end of the virtual discussion, making his point about the proclivities of the communist government. In the decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre, he contends, the mainland government has “become even more corrupt.” He continued, “If the CCP had not suppressed the truth about the virus that began in Wuhan, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved around the world” over the past several months.

Soon after the panel, Peterson answered questions and reviewed the status of Confucius Institutes.

"NAS tracks the decline in Confucius Institutes in the United States. We don't have a similar tracker for all Confucius Institutes globally, though certainly many in other countries have closed as well. In April, Sweden closed the last of its Confucius Institutes, for instance,” Peterson said told this reporter.

"Confucius Institutes have gone from being an asset to becoming a liability. Early on, universities advertised their Confucius Institutes as evidence of their global ties and foreign language curriculum. Now, as Confucius Institutes have become known nationwide as a threat, universities have sought to distance themselves or even close them down,” Peterson continued.

“Partly this is due to pressure from the [U.S.] federal government, which has launched investigations, warned against Confucius Institutes, and withheld funding to universities that maintain Confucius Institutes. But it is also due to student protests, faculty efforts, and the common-sense judgment of university administrators who see the dangers that Confucius Institutes pose,” she concluded.

Mosher said that the institutes, financed through cooperative agreements between American universities/colleges and the HanBan (the mainland government’s department of education) operate as an explicit arm of “United Front” activities, guided by the CCP. Government grants from the CCP “are always quid pro quo” – with direct benefit to the government of China.

Lankford, updating his perspective on Confucius Institutes, was even more critical than in the past. He said, “Beijing continues to suppress human rights throughout China, including the recent move to silence the citizens in Hong Kong. For decades, the Communist Party of China has used Confucius Institutes on American university campuses to distribute its propaganda under the guise of cultural education. Americans of all ages should stand up for the freedom of all people around the world and give a strong response to the misinformation propagated by Confucius Institutes.”

Hern said in a June 12 press release, “Laws exist that require universities to report foreign funding over $250,000 to the Department of Education, but so much can fall under the radar with a requirement that high. … There are currently no laws that require individual professors and departments to disclose funding directly to the American public. Universities and their professors occupy a position of public trust in this country, and public trust comes with an obligation for public transparency.”

Scrutiny has already had an impact: In recent years, Confucius Institutes in America have declined from 120 affiliations to 80.

NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Pat McGuigan is a certified teacher in 10 subject areas including World History. An admirer of the Chinese ethical Philosopher Confucius, McGuigan has often taught Chinese history units to Oklahoma students over the last 18 years. In the 1990s, his journalism focused on Asia was honored with the “International Communication Award” from the government of Taiwan, which he has visited four times.

Patrick B. McGuigan


A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books, including “Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork,” and editor of seven books. A state-certified teacher with 10 teaching certifications, he has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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