This Chinese-government-funded institute is taking over how Chinese is being taught around the world

Another day at the Confucius Institute.
Another day at the Confucius Institute.
Image: Reuters/Eliseo Fernandez
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Today, a top US university announced that it won’t be renewing its contract with the Confucius Institute (CI), a language and cultural arm of the Chinese government that is increasingly being criticized for self-censorship and encroaching on academic independence at the hundreds of universities and schools around the world where it is embedded. The University of Chicago in Illinois said in a statement that it had suspended negotiations for the Confucius Institute to complete another term at the school.

The university’s move reflects rising concern in the US and elsewhere over the institutes—there are over 1,000 now in more than 120 countries. The CI is similar to other government-affiliated cultural outreach programs, including France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe Institute, but Confucius Institutes are unusual in that are attached to college campuses.

The centers are gaining more critics. The Toronto District School Board delayed its partnership with the institute to offer classes to students, and in June, the American Association of University Professors called on universities in the country to cancel their contracts with the institutes unless standards for academic freedom are met. Last year, McMaster University in Canada shut down its CI after it dismissed a teacher who was a follower of the Falun Gong, a religious group that is banned in China.

American parents, teachers, and academics have been especially worried about the influence of Confucius Institutes. Some of the concerns are about political censorship—topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, the Tiananmen massacre, or human rights violations in China are off limits in the classes. And other concerns sound rather paranoid: In 2010, a parent in California told said on The Daily Show. “We should not be teaching our children about Mandarin language and Chinese culture…That’s brainwashing.”

But the real problem may be the institute’s growing monopoly over Chinese instruction in smaller universities and high schools. Schools such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University, which also has a Confucius Institute, have their own Asian studies departments where academics and students can pursue topics deemed too sensitive at the CI. But on smaller host campuses, most or even all of the Chinese language and culture classes are run by the CI, which supplies its own teachers, teaching material, and around $100,000 per institute in funding a year from the Chinese government, says Marshall Sahlins, an outspoken critic of the centers points out. The teachers and the curriculum are all approved by Beijing.

Despite growing criticism, expansion of the Confucius Institutes doesn’t appear to be losing steam. This week, the University of Cyprus opened a CI and in May, and the US College board signed a partnership to open 20 Confucius programs at K-12 schools. Chinese officials have said that expanding the Confucius Institute’s reach is a priority.