Illustration of a Chinese dragon snaking its way through a university building (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

An investigation by the U.S. Senate and reports from human rights groups indicate that government-backed Chinese cultural centers embedded in universities around the world attempt to police rhetoric about China at those schools.

Confucius Institutes are Chinese language-and-culture centers supported by Hanban, an organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Approximately 100 universities in the United States have Confucius Institutes.

“We found that Chinese funding for Confucius Institutes comes with strings attached — strings that can compromise academic freedom,” said Senator Rob Portman at a February 28 hearing on the institutes. Portman said they export “China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of politically sensitive topics.”

The hearing reviewed results of a study of Confucius Institutes by the Government Accountability Office that looked at contracts between Hanban and universities.

In many cases, contracts give Hanban influence over curriculum and hiring in exchange for providing operating expenses for a Confucius Institute, according to the study. Policymakers and educators say the contracts’ terms can leave the schools vulnerable to influence from the Chinese Communist Party. Some universities have reported Hanban has pressured faculty to censor university events and discussions.

“These are institutes whose curriculum is dictated by an authoritarian government in which hiring decisions are made partly based on political loyalty,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. The group recently released a code of conduct for upholding academic freedom that recommended universities refrain from hosting Confucius Institutes.

Overhead view of Chinese brush painting (© RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/Getty Images)
Students take a Chinese brush-painting class at the Community College of Denver Confucius Institute. (© RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

Portland State University student and Tibetan-American Lhanze Tum petitioned her school to close its Confucius Institute after learning that faculty “intentionally censored topics the Chinese government does not like” to avoid upsetting Hanban.

Some policymakers are concerned faculty members will self-censor for fear of damaging their schools’ lucrative arrangements with China, compromising academic freedom. “Let’s imagine there is a disagreement about the curriculum the Confucius Institute is using,” said Richardson. “Who does the host school ultimately appeal to? Can it have this argument effectively with the Chinese government? Probably not.”