By Greg Hugh -


confucious institute-logo-webThe American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has joined a growing chorus* of voices calling on North American universities to rethink their relationship with Confucius Institutes (CI), the international chain of [Chinese] state-sponsored Chinese-language programs embedded in partner schools abroad, whose policies critics say are anathema to academic freedom.  In a statement issued by the AAUP, it asserts “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.”

Evidently there is also some doubt within China as to whether or not funding for the Confucius Institutes can be better spent at home educating its own rural citizens.  Recently, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong read aloud a letter written by President Xi Jinping at a ceremony in Beijing celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Confucius Institute (CI) program.  The letter was celebratory, lauding the CIs “unremitting efforts for world peace and international cooperation.”  The effort is certainly there: the reach of CIs, which teach Chinese language and culture, has grown immensely.  In the program’s 10 years of existence, the Hanban - a Chinese government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Education and responsible for managing the program - has established 457 CIs and 707 Confucius Classrooms (a related program designed for primary and secondary schools) around the globe.  By the end of 2013, CIs had attracted 850,000 registered students since China first established a CI in South Korea in 2004.  But despite eye-catching numbers, the CIs have been anything but an unqualified success.  Not only have American partners begun fighting back against what they view as threats to academic freedom, many Chinese also view the soft-power initiative as a waste of money.


In the United States, pushback against CIs has recently intensified amid concerns they might threaten academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and promote the political aims of China’s ruling Communist Party.  On Sept. 25, the University of Chicago announced its refusal to renew its five-year contract with its CI, making it the first major U.S. research institution to cut ties with the program.  Just days later, on Oct. 1, as China was celebrating its National Day, Pennsylvania State University followed suit, announcing it would close its on-campus CI because of an apparent disagreement over Chinese government controls.

China Insight wanted to get a local reaction to the controversy that the Confucius Institutes are facing.  We invited Joan Brzezinski, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, to discuss this matter. 

China Insight: How long has the Confucius Institute been at the University of Minnesota and what is its mission?

Joan B: The Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota (CIUMN) was created in 2008 to promote the study of Chinese language and culture throughout Minnesota.  It is a collaborative initiative between the U of M, the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters and Capital Normal University in Beijing.  CIUMN provides language- and culture-learning opportunities for Minnesota K-12 students, business professionals and the local community; and professional development and networking opportunities for educators.

China Insight: Has the U of M received complaints about restrictions to academic integrity or independence?

Joan B:  While we understand AAUP and other institutions’ concerns about maintaining academic freedom and integrity, the University of Minnesota has not faced these issues given the unique mission of our Confucius Institute to work with the K-12 community and members of the public.  The CIUMN follows all U of M policies, including the Regents Policy on Academic Freedom and Responsibility.

China Insight: Who selects and hires the CIUMN staff?

Joan B:  Confucius Institute staff, including teachers of the non-credit language courses offered to the general public, are selected and hired by the University of Minnesota, with the exception of the Chinese director who is selected by our partner Capital Normal University and has a three-year term in a visiting faculty position. 

China Insight:  How is the CIUMN Board selected? 

Joan B:  The original board was selected by the U of M and Capital Normal University in 2008, with representatives from both sides.  All subsequent boards, including the current one, have been selected through nominations from current members and the desire to have K12, Minnesota Department of Education and University faculty represented.

China Insight:  Who sets the curriculum for Chinese language teaching?

Joan B:  Curriculum for the CIUMN’s non-credit Chinese language courses for the public is decided by the staff of the CIUMN.  Curriculum and pedagogy decisions related to K-12 Chinese language teaching are made at the school and district level with no input from the Confucius Institute.  The curriculum of the Chinese language courses at the U of M are the sole decision of the faculty and instructors in the Asian Languages and Literatures Department.  The Hanban Confucius Institute headquarters provides a library of books and teaching materials that local schools are free to use if they wish.

China Insight:  Has the CIUMN restricted debate on controversial issues?

Joan B:  The CIUMN has not received any requests to support programs on controversial or political topics, and the CIUMN has never been pressured or asked to object to any programming on campus. As an example, the Dalai Lama has visited the U of M and the Twin Cities three times since the CIUMN has opened, and no objections or complaints were received by CIUMN.  In addition, the CIUMN contract with the Hanban makes no concessions to the Chinese government regarding forbidden topics. 

China Insight:  What has been the impact of the CIUMN?

Joan B: The CIUMN has brought together the language and culture learning resources of the U of M to support the K-12 Chinese language community, which has seen great increases in the number of students studying Chinese.  The number of students in public schools has doubled from about 5,500 to more than 11,000 over the last six years.  The CIUMN is the only testing center in the region offering the major Chinese language proficiency tests, the HSK.  Furthermore, the CIUMN has provided additional scholarship opportunities for U of M students, additional funding and resources for K-12 language programs, and additional funding to support University faculty and research staff in their research in language acquisition and the development of teacher training. As you can see, the CIUMN has had a great impact on the ability of students across the state of Minnesota to learn Chinese, which will be a valuable skill as they enter the global workplace.  I hope that positive outcomes, like these, are also considered in future discussions about the role of Confucius Institutes.

Evidently the CIUMN’s affiliation with the Confucius Institutes has generally been a positive experience as conveyed in Brzezinski’s responses. We wish to express our thanks to her for her participation.

Even though the situation is positive locally, Confucius Institutes face suspicion, even hostility, in significant parts of the world as they start their second decade.  And yet, it is undeniable that Chinese money makes it possible for some institutions to offer courses in Chinese language and culture ― and for students to benefit ― that would be impossible otherwise.  Thus, universities considering such a move have to ask themselves whether they have more to gain or lose by hosting a Confucius Institute. Universities must be vigilant and completely transparent and vocal about the Institutes’ funding agreements and be clear about how to handle any pressures, subtle or overt, in unknowingly providing a vehicle for the spread of any possible soft-power agenda by China.

*To read the ongoing discussion of concerns over Confucius Institutes, keyword search “Confucius Institute concerns”  and “Confucius Institute defense” online.

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