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Colleges shouldn’t sell souls for China

Educational exchanges between the United States and China have grown to record numbers. With these programs come scholarly value but also risks.

Confucius Institutes offer an example of this trade-off. These centers, heavily funded and supported by the Chinese government, offer Chinese language and culture classes around the world. But unlike Germany’s Goethe-Institut or the U.K.’s British Council, many are established directly inside U.S. universities. It’s this combination of linkage and Chinese control that carries risk.

Last week, the American Association of University Professors called on almost 100 U.S. universities to re-examine their ties with Beijing’s signature cultural outpost.

“Occasionally university administrations have entered into partnerships that sacrificed the integrity of the university,” the association wrote. “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”

Chinese officials have said these institutes constitute “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.” They’ve proliferated quickly, with China aiming to hit “500 large cities across the world by 2020.” But educational exchange should not come at the expense of free speech – especially not with the help of the U.S. academic community.

At North Carolina State University in 2009, the Confucius Institute allegedly objected to the university’s invitation to the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan spiritual leader whom China considers a traitor. The event was canceled. While the official rationale was lack of time and resources, the university provost told Bloomberg, “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications. Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.”

Three years later, institute instructor Sonia Zhao told a human rights tribunal that her employment contract dictated she was “not allowed to join illegal organizations such as Falun Gong,” a spiritual movement that China sees as a threat. She was also “trained in Beijing to dodge sensitive topics in class,” according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Zhao taught at a Canadian university, but these practices extend to centers at U.S. universities, where China controls many hiring and curriculum choices.

Self-censorship – illustrated with a University of Chicago administrator’s acknowledgment that he would not hang a picture of the Dalai Lama in its Confucius Institute – has also been documented.

These concerns have led some universities to reject China’s proposals. Faculty in universities with institutes have signed petitions of protest. Many worry about the secrecy of the undisclosed contracts between China and school administrators. Some elite universities, such as Stanford, negotiated restrictions away, but others have not done so.

China offers hundreds of thousands – in some cases millions – of dollars, in addition to what the London School of Economics’ institute director calls “a ready-made partner.” But academic freedom cannot have a price tag. Universities should publish their agreements to show there is no possibility of Chinese discrimination and suppression. If they can’t or won’t do so, the programs should end.

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