Last week the University announced its suspension of negotiations with the Confucius Institute (CI) and its parent Hanban—essentially ending the potential for another five-year collaboration with the Chinese government–backed nonprofit institution. The statement released by the University of Chicago cited the incompatibility of “a continued equal partnership” between the University and the CI. This was due in part because of comments made by Xu Lin, the CI’s chief executive, in which she potentially intimidated the University into anxiously agreeing to continue its partnership with the CI before formal agreements were made. Coupled with the pressure from an April petition signed by more than 100 professors calling for the end of the CI, the University believed it was all too much to sustain the tepid negotiations.
The April petition seems to be the real reason for the cutting of ties. The professors stated that a termination of the relationship would be “consistent with the intellectual principles and values of the university.” They believed that the University lacked enough control in the hiring and training process of teachers and cited instances at other universities where Confucius Institutes tried to steer academic discussion away from sensitive issues like Taiwan, the Chinese democracy movement, Tiananmen Square, and Falun Gong.
However, the closure of the University of Chicago’s Confucius Institute, and what it reflects about similar closures nationwide, showcases a rather narrow mindset among some academics when it comes to Chinese scholarship and its effects on U.S.–China relations.
What the professors who signed the petition seem to have missed is that none of the instances cited have ever occurred at the University of Chicago. Moreover, in the petition they acknowledge that the University unquestionably “reserves the right to refuse teachers proposed by Hanban”—the University is, and has always been, the final arbiter of who is allowed to teach here. For the professors, the fact that this right of refusal has never been exercised when it comes to Confucius Institute instructors implies that the University is complicit in the political goals and censorship of the Chinese government, rather than the fact that there may have simply been nothing objectionable about the instructors. Furthermore, Hanban does not set the curricula for these instructors, most if not all of whom teach Chinese language courses. The instructors set their curricula themselves, which is the same level of autonomy granted to other University of Chicago faculty. It seems that many believe if Chinese scholars do not focus on the corruption and malaise of the Communist Party, then there must be some level of negative influence and silencing from above. This ignores the fact that there are many other aspects of Chinese history and culture that interest academics. The study of China should extend beyond a focus on its corrupt government or political system to its people and culture, which encompass well over 3,000 years of history.
The aptly named Confucius Institute highlights the fact that the University currently offers zero classes on Chinese or Far East philosophy. The values derived from this set of beliefs influence the behavior, preferences, and lives of more than half the world’s population, yet the University has never had any courses on Confucianism, Daoism, or other East Asian philosophies in my three years here as an undergrad. The loss of the Confucius Institute is a loss of discussion and interest in aspects of Chinese history that do not focus on its current political struggles. Understandably, many faculty and students—myself included—object wholly to China’s spree of corruption, censorship, and human rights abuses, and it is their right to protest against influences they believe affect the University negatively. But to comprehend and tackle these issues productively, a consistent understanding of the values that drive the Chinese system and Chinese people needs to be prioritized. The shutting down of the University of Chicago’s CI only serves to limit the number of opportunities for current students who wish to focus in those areas of Chinese study—pushing them further into the academic groupthink of Western-centric notions of philosophy.
The rejection of CIs around the United States underlies the larger relationship between the U.S. and China. While other nations around the world are opening up more CIs, especially in the Middle East and Africa, American institutions are campaigning to shut them down. There seems to be no attempt to change the aspects that many object to, only a push to shutter the Institutes—no back-and-forth between Hanban and universities about changing the structure of the relationship or reforming the hiring practices so many professors find intolerable. This lack of compromise will only widen the gap of understanding between East and West. Future scholars and leaders will be unable to comprehend the attitudes and decisions made by their Chinese counterparts—in part because of the heavy focus on education regarding the politics and aspirations of the Chinese government rather than on greater cultural understanding between American and Chinese people. The University’s decision to terminate its agreement with the Confucius Institute only serves to exacerbate this disparity.
Lear Jiang is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science and economics.