The University of Chicago is shutting down a Chinese-language program that has been criticized by many as a potential outlet for pro-Chinese propaganda.
The decision — a major rebuke of Chinese diplomatic efforts abroad — could encourage many other schools in the United States to take a similar step.
Chicago’s Confucius Institute was established in 2010, but the school’s contract with Hanban, the Chinese government department that runs the Institute, expires this coming Monday. The university announced Thursday that it has decided not to renew the contract, meaning the program will abruptly close.
The Confucius Institute program, begun a decade ago and currently present in over 120 countries, is an effort by the Chinese government to improve its cultural reach around the globe. The Institute provides funding and personnel for Chinese language instruction, and also sponsors Chinese cultural events. With demand for Chinese instruction soaring as China’s global influence rises, many universities have welcomed the additional funding. In addition to Chicago, Institutes exist at over 90 other U.S. universities, including top schools such as Princeton.
While China maintains that the Institutes merely exist to promote Chinese language and culture abroad, critics argue they allow for universities to be unduly influenced by Chinese state interests, with instructors allegedly told to shy away from sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and the Chinese government’s restrictions on free expression. As evidence, critics point towards an academic conference held in Portugal last summer, in which Hanban pressure resulted in the censorship of several references to groups based in Taiwan that the agency deemed “inappropriate.”
Criticism of the Confucius Institute has been stronger at Chicago than at most schools, with about 100 faculty members signed a petition last spring opposing renewal, arguing that the institute gave the Chinese government an undue voice in the school’s curriculum and research decisions.
Others defend the programs, arguing that despite their ties to the Chinese government little evidence exists of undue interference from Beijing.
In a letter announcing the nonrenewal, the University of Chicago did not blame academic interference, but instead pointed towards an article run last week in a Chinese-language magazine that profiled Hanban head Xu Lin.
In the article, Lin appeared to boast about intimidating the school following last spring’s faculty petition. She claimed to have sent the university a letter with only a single line: “If your school decides to withdraw, I will agree to it.”
While innocuous in English, in Chinese such a statement implies a challenge, with Xu daring the university to cancel the program. Chicago officials reportedly became anxious and immediately assured Xu that the program would continue.
The implication that Chicago’s administrators could be so concerned with placating a Chinese government official was a major blow against claims the Institute couldn’t influence school decision-making, and may have compelled the school to reassert its independence.
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