Two more Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes in Georgia are set to shutter amid increasing U.S. government scrutiny of the language education centers that have been criticized as propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party.
Emory University announced Aug. 18 that it would not renew its relationship with Hanban, or the Confucius Institute Headquarters, after the current memorandum of understanding expires in November 2021.
Emory in June sent a letter outlining its decision to Hanban, the Beijing-based agency overseeing at their height more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. The university plans to continue offering Confucius Institute programming for the coming academic year.
Emory said the Confucius Institute in Atlanta has aided its ability to teach students about Chinese language and culture since it opened in 2008 as a partnership between Emory, Nanjing University and Atlanta Public Schools. APS was home to one of more than 500 so-called Confucius Classrooms around the country manned by teachers sent from China and outfitted with books and other resources until its agreement was reworked in 2013.
As U.S.-China relations have deteriorated, American officials have grown increasingly concerned that China uses the Confucius Institute platform — and the leverage bought through language funding — to stifle free expression about issues sensitive to China on college campuses.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Aug. 13 designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington as a foreign mission of China, requiring it to report personnel and property to the government much like diplomatic offices.
Mr. Pompeo in a statement called the center “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms. Confucius Institutes are funded by the PRC and part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.”
The center noted in an open letter to the State Department that it doesn’t coordinate the activities of the individual institutes; instead it provides programming and pedagogical support. The institutes themselves are run by universities and their counterparts in China, with funding from Hanban.
Still, even before State Department move took effect, efforts were under way at many schools to disassociate with Hanban and the Confucius Institute brand.
And China itself was restructuring the way it manages the institutes: The Global Times, a state media outlet, announced that China’s Ministry of Education would spin off the management and funding of Confucius Institutes to a nongovernmental foundation, while creating a new agency to oversee overseas language and culture exchanges.
Some critics believe this new structure would make it even harder to track Chinese government influence operations and have called more stringent rules for universities accepting and funding from China.
Feeling pressure from the U.S. and fielding more aggressive queries from legislators and agencies like the FBI, many institutes had already shut down their institutes. That includes one at Kennesaw State University institute that opened in 2009, as well as one at Augusta University focused on traditional Chinese medicine. Savannah State University has also closed its institute.
Some, like Emory, maintain that the overall effect of their Confucius Institutes has been broad exposure to China for students and communities that would not have otherwise been possible.
Many contend that China-funded teachers only preside over language classes and that professors are not pressured to censor discussion on sensitive issues like human rights, Xinjiang, the Tiananmen Square protests or territorial concerns like Tibet and Taiwan.
Emory had this to say about its appetite for continued engagement with China:
“Emory remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and research and this decision does not reflect any diminished interest in engagement with China. The role of U.S. universities in promoting mutual knowledge and engagement of China is more important now than ever and Emory will continue to be part of those efforts.”
Georgia State University, meanwhile, is ending its Confucius Institute but maintaining its relationship with the Beijing Language and Culture University, which has hosted multiple delegations of Georgia students and even professionals in recent years.
“Given the strong and multi-faceted links we have developed over the years, including academic collaborations, student exchange and study abroad, and its status as one of the leading institutions for teaching Chinese as a foreign language, BLCU is the ideal partner for us to build on and expand the many achievements of the Georgia State CI,” Associate Vice Provost for International Initiatives Wolfgang Schlör said in an Aug. 18 email to supporters.
The GSU Confucius Institute was established in 2010 and “helped dramatically increase Chinese language enrollment at Georgia State,” Dr. Schlör said.
Initiated after the arrival of President Mark Becker, who led the charge to established a similar institute at the University of South Carolina that is also still standing, the GSU center focused on business engagement, tailoring Mandarin courses for companies and organizing business briefings on China’s economy.
The former Confucius Institute staff, which as recently as 2018 was honored by China’s education ministry for its work, will transfer to the new initiative. It’s unclear whether Beijing Language and Culture University will contribute any new funding.
The closures leave the Confucius Institute at Wesleyan College in Macon as the last one standing in Georgia.
In 2018, Wesleyan President Vivia Fowler outlined in an open letter the litany of requests she has received for information from various U.S. agencies and legislators, including the FBI and the Government Accountability Office.
Dr. Fowler painted a picture of a community-oriented center that has hosted dance performances, cultural festivals, elementary-level Mandarin instruction and Saturday schools for children adopted from China. She argued that the queries were based on faulty assumptions and seemed more like political posturing than sincere concerns about academic freedom.
“Wesleyan College does not hesitate to discuss and teach about the topics that are considered taboo on many university campuses in China. In fact, our Chinese students delight in the freedom of expression and inquiry and emphasis on critical thinking that we encourage, and those who return to China — either as exchange students or dual-degree students — miss the academic rigor, free expression with other students and with their professors, and demand for critical thinking that they enjoy while they are here,” Dr. Fowler wrote.
Wesleyan also posted the full text of the memorandum signed with Guangzhou University and Hanban, in contrast to criticisms that Confucius Institutes operate via “secret agreements” between China and the host institution.
Wesleyan, which has a storied history with China, recently signed on with the Chinese International Education Foundation, the successor organization to Hanban, for the duration of its current agreement with Guangzhou University, Dr. Fowler said.
Wesleyan has used State Department funding to help operate an American Cultural Center on the Guangzhou University campus. That center has hosted lectures by Wesleyan faculty on teaching methods and various cultural topics.
Correction: An earlier version of this story noted that all Confucius Institutes were designated as foreign missions by the State Department; in reality just the Confucius Institutes U.S. Center in Washington was targeted.
The story has been updated with information about Wesleyan College’s renewal.
Note of disclosure: Both Georgia State University and its Confucius Institute are advertisers with Global Atlanta, which recently received an award from the university’s Office of International Education.