May 13, 2014

Confucius contusion

Student Government president-elect urges closure of Confucius Institute.

“At its inception, the University of Chicago purposefully distinguished itself within the landscape of higher education in the United States. It was intended from the start to be, and it remains today, an institution where the culture supports open, rigorous, and intense inquiry as the highest value, where education and research are embedded in this culture of inquiry, where intellectual freedom is viewed as essential to open inquiry, and where we are open to all people and all perspectives that can stand the scrutiny of argument. Over the years, most of the universities on the east coast gradually moved toward aspects of this model themselves, but resonance of the distinctiveness of UChicago remains both in culture and in policies reflecting that culture.”

The above is an excerpt from an address made by University President Robert Zimmer at a conference titled “What is Academic Freedom For?” As students concerned that the distinctiveness of this University’s uncompromising commitment to academic freedom is threatened, we believe these words are a good place to start.

As was reported by the Maroon (“Confucius Institute Protested by Faculty” [5/02/14]), over 100 faculty members have signed a petition calling on the Committee of the Council of the Faculty Senate to terminate the University’s contract with the Head Office of the Confucius Institutes (part of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, colloquially known as Hanban) for a Confucius Institute (CI) on this campus. We feel that terminating the contract is consistent with the University’s absolute commitment to academic integrity and free and open inquiry.

Confucius Institutes are Chinese government-funded organizations embedded in foreign campuses, which provide Chinese language instruction in addition to funding research and putting on programming that promotes the study of Chinese language and culture. They are widely accepted to be an exercise of “soft power” on the part of the Chinese government, teaching Mandarin using non-traditional, government-promulgated characters and highlighting certain aspects of Chinese history and culture. At the same time, the curricula and programming put on by CIs avoid any discussion of more controversial cultural, social, and human rights issues, and it is known that instructors at some universities are trained to change the topic of discussion if and when such issues come up. The staff that works for the CI (and thus that provide Chinese language instruction at the host university) are, while ultimately selected by the University, initially recommended by Hanban. However, Hanban has been known in the past to adhere to a hiring policy illegal under American law, by prohibiting members of the spiritual movement Falun Gong “and other illegal organizations” from being candidates for a position with a CI abroad. By yielding to Hanban’s hiring policy, the University is complicit in discrimination both religious and political. In 2012, such a case resulted in McMaster University being brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and McMaster ultimately terminated the contract for their CI.

This is not the only incident having to do with CIs that has been problematic with regards to academic freedom. From impacting North Carolina State University officials’ decision to cancel a planned visit to that campus by the Dalai Lama, to a case where officials at Tel Aviv University shut down a student art exhibition regarding the oppression of the Falun Gong out of fear of damaging the University’s relationship with China and Hanban, elements of censorship and internal pressure to stifle the expression of certain views have manifested themselves in ways incompatible with the intellectual aims of this University.

More than 400 Confucius Institutes exist worldwide, primarily at smaller colleges and universities which otherwise would not be able to provide language instruction without outside support. Increasingly, however, prominent universities with large endowments are signing onto the program. Incidentally, the University signed its contract with Hanban just under a year prior to the establishment of the University Center in Beijing. Regardless of the exact political circumstances that led to the University signing a contract for a CI with Hanban, we feel that by subcontracting out control over academic programs to an entity shown to be biased, and which participates in both passive and active censorship, is a grave breach of the tradition of academic freedom we seek to uphold at this university. By lending our name to the Confucius Institute program, we compromise our commitment to free inquiry and risk doing irreparable harm to our reputation as a university with an unparalleled commitment to academic freedom. Administration can step in and—as they did before—support a Chinese language program run entirely by the University, and continue to support the research done by faculty in the Department of East Asian languages and civilization, both of which are of profound value to this institution. However, of the utmost value to our University is our commitment to academic integrity, and for this reason we support the faculty petition and urge the termination of the contract for the CI.

Tyler Kissinger and Max Samels are second-years in the College.