US professors urge Western universities to end ties to China’s Confucius Institutes

By Peter Foster, The Telegraph | June 18, 2014

In a serious blow to China’s soft-power outreach, a leading association of American professors warns that Confucius Institutes break basic standards on academic freedom

Chinese soft-power diplomacy has suffered a major rebuke after the leading association of American university professors accused China’s network of Confucius Institutes of flouting basic rules of academic freedom and integrity.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called for agreements between Confucius Institutes and nearly 100 universities to be either cancelled or renegotiated so that they properly reflected Western values of free speech.

“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” the AAUP said in a statement, urging US universities to “cease their involvement” with the institutes unless major reforms are instituted.

China’s network of 300 Confucius Institutes – including 11 branches in on British university campuses – can be a lucrative source of funds for universities but are exempt from many of the basic rules government academic discourse.

They are designed to project a favourable image of China’s ruling Communist Party around the world through language and cultural programmes, but are allowed to restrict discussions of topics unpalatable to China’s ruling Communist Party such as the occupation of Tibet.

“Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China,” the AAUP statement added.

“Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” Concerns over how China is uses its vast cash resources to buy influence in academia have been mounting in recent years.

Earlier this month The Telegraph revealed that Cambridge University had allowed a charitable foundation linked to China’s former prime minister Wen Jiabao to endow a chair of Chinese development studies.

One academic accused Cambridge of allowing the Chinese government to “purchase a professorship” at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

The AAUP is a 47,000-member association which was founded in 1915 to guard academic freedom. It’s call to cancel Confucius Institute agreements is a huge blow for China’s premiere soft-power project which Beijing says is equivalent to the UK’s British Council or Frances’s Alliance Français.

However the AAUP drew a clear distinction between the British and French organisations, which existed off-campus and openly fulfilled their mandates, with the on-campus Confucius Institutes that are allowed to bypass basic tenets of academic freedom in exchange for money.

The Confucius Institute website says the Institutes are intended for “the promotion and dissemination of Chinese language and culture” more generally, however critics have accused them merely of being the propaganda arm of the ruling Communist Party of China.

According to the AAUP statement, the academic activities “are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China”.

The universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Cardiff, Central Wales, Nottingham, Sheffield, Soas, the London School of Economics, London South Bank University, Liverpool and Central Lancashire are all listed as having Confucius Institutes.

In the past, China has batted away criticism of its Institutes, with the Chinese ambassador to London accusing critics of submitting to “Cold War thinking” in 2012 after Christopher Hughes, a China expert at the London School of Economics, raised concerns about hosting such centres in the wake of a scandal over the LSE’s taking funding from the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Similar concerns were raised earlier this month in Toronto, Canada, after trustees of the Toronto District School Board’s newly minted Confucius Institute recommended suspending its partnership with the Chinese government because of concerns over censorship.

They are due to vote on whether to end the partnership on Wednesday.

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