As a Chinese studies graduate of the University of Maryland, I was drawn to the news that the school’s president, Wallace Loh, had decided to close its Confucius Institute – the oldest one in the United States. Confucius Institutes, found at numerous US universities, are Chinese government-funded outposts that offer Chinese language and culture classes.
Loh emphasized that the university closed its Confucius Institute because of the US 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which forces schools to choose between keeping their Confucius Institutes or receiving language program funding from the US Defense Department.
Over the past six years, at least 29 of more than 100 US universities that had Confucius Institutes have closed them. Twenty-two closed after the law passed in August 2018, with 12 schools noting the need to comply with the act.
University academics have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that Confucius Institutes were an affront to academic freedom on campus. Most of the academics objected to the inherent Chinese state censorship of certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and of hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.
Yet the US government’s approach to Confucius Institutes is a blunt financial instrument, and using it may mean schools are not thinking broadly about the consequences of having Chinese state-sponsored institutions on their campuses, or of other threats emanating from Beijing, such as surveillance of students or pressuring scholars to self-censor.
For example, will the University of Maryland be prompted to rethink its other ties and longstanding partnerships, including with the China State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs, which train “approximately 600 Chinese officials and university administrators every year”? Is the university taking sufficient steps to ensure all its students have full academic freedom when debating issues Chinese authorities deem sensitive? In 2017, a University of Maryland student, Yang Shuping, was harassed online and by the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association for her commencement speech, which extolled freedom of expression; the university’s response was tepid and underscores the pressing need to assess threats to academic freedom.
I value my experiences at Maryland’s Language House, where I improved my language skills and formed meaningful connections with students from China. As my alma mater and other universities remove Beijing-controlled institutions from their campuses, they should ensure exchanges free of government control get sufficient support.