September 30, 2014

University to end partnership with Confucius Institute

The University announced last week it will end its partnership with the controversial Confucius Institute, a Chinese government–affiliated organization that provides Chinese language training, cultural education, and funding but has also been accused of stifling academic freedom.

This decision comes in light of comments made by Xu Lin, the chief executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters and director-general of Hanban, the Chinese governmental organization that facilitates the institutes, to the publication Jiefang Daily in regards to the University of Chicago. The University cited the article in a statement released Thursday in which it called Xu’s comments “incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”

The University had been in negotiations for several months with the Confucius Institute over renewing its contract after its first five-year term on campus when Xu’s comments were published. In the article, Xu discussed her reaction to a petition signed by 108 University faculty members asking the University to end its relationship with the Confucius Institute. In response to the petition, Xu wrote a letter to the University’s dean and called the University’s representative in Beijing. She told them that “If your University decides not to renew the contract, I will not object.” Her attitude worried the University authorities, and they quickly responded that they still planned to renew the contract.

However, after seeing the article, the University reconsidered. The article paints Xu as a tough negotiator, and uses her reaction to the University petition as an example of Xu getting what she wanted through this tough negotiating style, something that irked University officials. Some have speculated that the decision not to renew the contract was due to more than just Xu’s comments, but a University official said that the article had a real effect on the University’s decision. The decision to cease negotiations was ultimately made by University leadership in consultation with faculty, according to a University spokesperson.

According to the petition calling for the removal of the Confucius Institute, the Institute is subject to Chinese law, and therefore the University’s academic program is under constraints from the Chinese government. In addition, Hanban has the authority to decide which specific instructors will teach the classes funded by the Institute.

One specific concern outlined was the dismissal of an instructor from McMaster University in Canada after it was discovered that she followed Falun Gong, a religious movement that is banned in China. The case was used as an example of how the Confucius Institute can limit freedom of speech. McMaster University did not renew its contract with the Confucius Institute after the firing. In addition, the petition claimed that “Hanban teachers are trained to ignore or divert questions on issues that are politically taboo in China, or indeed criminalized, such as the status of Taiwan, Tiananmen, the pro-democracy movement, etc.”

“Any time you surrender control over staffing and course content to those who provide financial support, it’s a prescription for major troubles. The president [Robert Zimmer] and provost [Eric Isaacs] apparently came to understand that and they have resoundingly reaffirmed our core values of free inquiry, institutional autonomy, and academic integrity,” Divinity School professor Bruce Lincoln, an organizer of the petition, wrote in an e-mail.

In June, the governing board of the Confucius Institute issued an official recommendation to the provost of the University to renew the contract with the Institute. It had been expected that the University would follow the recommendation.

Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, attempted to downplay the controversy during a press conference on Monday.

“Based on my knowledge, all Confucius Institutes are voluntarily applied by U.S. universities, and established with formal agreement between Confucius Institutes Headquarters and the universities after friendly negotiation,” Hua said. “Confucius Institutes provide support like teachers and textbooks with the voluntary application by universities, never impose, and it is not possible to threaten the universities’ academic freedom and reputation.”