The University of New Hampshire is renewing a long-term contract with a China-based group that’s raised concerns among U.S. intelligence agencies. Confucius Institutes, which partner with colleges and universities around the globe, have been accused of serving as propaganda outlets of the Chinese government.
Supporters, however, say the Institutes provide students in the U.S. with classes and programs they couldn’t otherwise access.
NHPR’s Todd Bookman spoke about the issue with All Things Considered host Emily Quirk.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are the Confucius Institutes, and how long have they been around?
The Confucius Institutes offer educational programs--mostly Chinese language classes--for higher ed students, as well as for local K-12 students in some communities. They also host cultural events on campuses, and help coordinate study abroad programs in China.
The first Institute was set up in the U.S. in 2004 at the University of Maryland. They’ve grown rapidly since then. Today, there are more than 100 Institutes on college campuses in the U.S, and hundreds more spread out around the globe.
And they’re all funded by the Chinese government.
And it’s that relationship with the Chinese government that’s at the center of the criticism...
Essentially, yes. That’s why some critics describe the Confucius Institutes as akin to a public relations campaign to improve China’s image in the world. They argue that the end goal of the investment is to counter the narrative that China’s rise is an economic or security threat to the West.
Then there are others who see them as even more nefarious than that.
What about the Institute at UNH? What’s its history?
The Confucius Institute at UNH launched in 2009, and it has the same mission as every other branch.
It’s presence in Durham is relatively modest. There are just two instructors at any given time from China who operate out of an office in a building on campus. They teach introductory and intermediate Chinese language classes.
The school’s only financial responsibility, I’m told, is to provide the instructors with housing while they are here.
I spoke with Professor Lawrence C. Reardon. He’s a China expert and heads up UNH’s Asian Studies minor. He was also the guy responsible for bringing CI to campus a decade ago.
He said at the time the school’s Chinese language offerings were pretty limited.
“We could not get the University to finance Chinese language. So when they found out the Chinese government was providing the money, hey, that’s free money, says Reardon. “Is it the best way? No. If I had my druthers, we would be using UNH money, we would be using U.S. government money, we’d be using state money. Not Chinese money.”
It sounds very New Hampshire...why pay for something when you can get it for free?
Exactly. The Confucius Institutes, though, have been coming under more scrutiny in the U.S lately. Faculty at some of these schools have voiced discomfort and skepticism about the true value of these institutes to students.
They point out that China’s own record on academic freedom, peaceful dissent and human rights is fairly poor.
And it’s been an issue in Congress. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern. This came to a head last year during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Here’s a bit of what FBI Director Christopher Wray said when asked about Confucius Institutes:
“The Confucius Institutes are a source of concern, but we view those more as part of China’s soft power strategy and influence,” said Wray. “In other words, those offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese communist party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom, etcetera. So it is an area of concern.”
Wray spoke about the naivete of some in the academic world, and about the potential for so-called “non-traditional collectors” meaning spies. He said the FBI was in some cases actively investigating Confucius Institutes.
In response to this, a handful of schools in the U.S. did cut their ties, including the University of Rhode Island and University of South Florida among them.
Despite all those concerns, New Hampshire is sticking with the program...
Yes, but the school has installed what you could call safeguards. For starters, Institute staff only teach language classes, not any history or political classes. And under the terms of the 2014 contract and the recently signed renewal, there is an Oversight and Advisory Board that monitors the Institute and its staff, and a Board of Directors that sets the curriculum.
In a statement, University officials write, "We are aware of concerns around the role the Chinese government plays in U.S.-based institutes and have implemented all recommendations made by the American Council on Education to ensure the Confucius Institute adheres to our core value of academic freedom and UNH maintains complete control."
Professor Lawrence Reardon also says the school is not blind to the risks here:
“I would be the first to be yelling and screaming. I’m a former military officer. I would be yelling and screaming and saying there is something wrong here. I’m not seeing it yet. I’ve asked students. They’re not seeing it. I’ve talked to faculty members, they’re not seeing it. But we will say something if we see something.”
And so, at least for the next five years, the Chinese government will pay for these teachers to work at UNH, and the students there can take classes the school may not otherwise offer.