China-backed language institute remains at ASU amid national closures

The Chinese government-backed organization has faced criticism at other universities

A Chinese-funded language and cultural institute at ASU remains standing as intense scrutiny has toppled similar institutes across the country. 

Confucius institutes are funded by the Chinese government and seek to promote Chinese culture on university campuses as well as at high schools and help educators teach Chinese, according to their website. The institutes also hold cultural events, academic lectures and symposiums. 

They have been around for about 15 years, with ASU’s institute being founded in 2007. The terms of agreement between the Chinese government and ASU have not been renewed in years, but the institute remains active on campus. 

Lawmakers and think tanks have called into question the motives of the institutes, pointing to past cases of prejudicial hiring, censorship and unconventional academic practices, but ASU and others in academia say the dangers have been blown out of proportion. 

Some institutes have faced such scrutiny by other faculty and staff that they've closed, like the University of Chicago's Confucius institute, which closed in 2014 after 100 faculty members signed a petition airing a laundry list of grievances against the program.

ASU's institute is unlikely to face the same type of faculty backlash, as it has always maintained hiring capabilities and doesn't face any of the academic censorship or constraints mentioned in the other closures, according to an ASU official.

ASU is not free from controversy, however. As continued scrutiny has raised the pressure on the institutes, the institute's proximity to other government programs has become a flash point. 

Over the summer, ASU Vice President for Government Affairs Matt Salmon  misspoke at a Confucius event in Washington D.C. by saying that a pentagon-backed Chinese program was funneling funds into the China-backed Confucius institute. 

Salmon was answering a question about the relationship between the Confucius Institute at ASU and a different Chinese language program that is funded by the Department of Defense called the Flagship Language Program.

“The Department of Defense has invested in Arizona’s Confucius program because they are looking for this kind of a pipeline to find people who speak Mandarin and are able to do so in their field of study,” Salmon said. “I think that shows they are not concerned about it being a threat to national security.” 

A University official said that Salmon simply misspoke and that ASU never commingled funding for the programs. According to The Washington Post, an unnamed defense official said the Confucius Institute was still a risk. 

“We do absolutely see this as a national security issue,” a senior defense official said to The Washington Post. “We asked (ASU) what were the facts. Then we took action very quickly to shut it down."

Salmon wasn't available to comment about his claims at the time of publication. 

However, the idea that funds from a communist-backed language program could in theory be infused with funds from the Pentagon still alarmed many in Washington.

Shortly after the comments were made, legislators added language into the National Defense Authorization Act that strictly prohibited the sharing of funds between the DoD backed programs and Confucius institutes. 

One of the stipulations of the NDAA requires universities to apply for a waiver to continue both programs, which ASU plans to do.

Department of Defense spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell made it clear in an emailed statement that the programs must be kept completely separate and should not in any way be mixed.

“The Language Flagship program funds do not support Confucius Institutes at our partner institutions of higher education,” Maxwell said in an emailed statement to The State Press. “The Language Flagship program grant and funding is solely with ASU and no funding goes to Confucius institute. Confucius Institute instructors are not funded or controlled by the Flagship Program. The Flagship program is not ‘paired’ or affiliated with Confucius Institute. Confucius Institute courses do not fall under the programs approved for Flagship students.”

Leading up to the comments, Joe Cutter, the director of ASU's Confucius Institute, was in fact in charge of both programs, and was thus obliged to be controlled by both the Defense Department-backed program, and the Chinese one. 

This, Cutter said, is where Salmon’s confusion came from.

While there was no improper mixing of funds or academic material the joint oversight of both programs was a glaring conflict, which Cutter noted was not statutorily illegal at that point.

Cutter said he stepped down as soon as he realized the national attitude and anxiety surrounding the institutes, and understood that a legal separation was impending. 

“What you have to remember is that at the time all this happened, when we got the grant and all that, no one was looking at the Confucius institutes … there wasn’t any of this criticism that has sprung up since then,” Cutter said. “So back when I (ran both programs) there was no problem. But then the problem developed, so I gave up that position.”

Since then, the two programs have been fully walled off from one another with no collaboration in accordance with the new law.

Cutter said the Chinese government has no bearing on the day-to-day operations of the Institute. 

“I think we have a very high degree of autonomy. I would say we have never experienced any censorship,” Cutter said. “A lot of things we do are things that we are asked to do by people on campus, or by people in the local school districts, and so I just don’t feel any kind of pressure.”

Cutter scoffed at the idea that the operations, at ASU at least, were dangerous. 

“I will say if you saw what we do here, which is essentially scholarship, mostly about pre-modern China, and supporting and facilitating scholarship about pre-modern China, or teaching Chinese classes," he said. "I think that you would think that is pretty harmless."

He and other ASU officials said the institute does not pose any threat to academic freedom or national security, but the national environment has been increasingly hostile toward the institutes, triggering a handful of them to be closed in the past two years.

Rachelle Peterson, the policy director for National Association of Scholars, an advocacy group focusing on education, wrote a study on supposed dangers of the institutes and said the mere existence of a Chinese-funded program on an American college campus poses a severe risk. 

In her study, Peterson references instances of "external pressures (from the institutes) to avoid political topics they might otherwise have broached."

“They have spread a lot of controversies because they jeopardize academic freedom and restrict open freedom of speech on college campuses,” Peterson said. “They also serve as outposts of the Chinese government on American college campuses.”

The most recent closure was at North Carolina State University, which shuttered its institute in November. The decision was mostly to realign the schools programs to better fit with their Asia and China programs, according to local reports, but the school's Provost, Warwick Arden, said it was "certainly aware of the concerns that are circulating around Confucius Institutes.”

Among the harshest critics of the programs is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has repeatedly spoken out against the institutes, calling them the “velvet glove around the iron fist of their campaigns on our campuses.” 

“Communist China is infiltrating American universities to meddle with our curricula, silence criticism of their regime and steal intellectual property including sensitive dual-use research,” Cruz said in a May, 2018 statement. “The American government needs new tools to protect the integrity of our universities and research, and to block academic espionage.”

Confucius Institutes aren’t the only issue over which Washington and academia are butting heads. 

Recent concerns over the theft of intellectual property and the national security implications of foreign students in high-capacity STEM programs have triggered new regulations and restrictions on Chinese Student visas from the Trump administration.  


FBI Director Christopher Wray also shared concerns about the institutes in a Senate intelligence committee hearing earlier this year.

“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes, we've been watching that development for a while. It's just one of many tools that they take advantage of,” Wray said in response to questions from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) about the programs.  “We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we are watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”

Another common criticism is that the academic curriculum is forced to bolster the image of China, Peterson said, including omitting events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre from course materials. 

“Students would learn not about the historical event but about the tourist attraction that Tiananmen Square now is," she said. 

But Cutter said that while it was not in current course work at ASU, he would grant requests of ASU academics at the institute regardless of their nature — up and to the point of inviting the Dalai Lama, who the Chinese government doesn't recognize, to campus.

“Now it’s true that we haven’t invited the Dalai Lama to come to campus,” Cutter said. “But on the other hand, if somebody were to propose that, I might not be averse to seeing if we could help bring it off.”

And at ASU, Cutter said the University maintained complete control over the curriculum of the institute, even if that material verged on casting China in a bad light.

“From my point of view, China is not a perfect place — I’m not crazy about some of the things that they do — but they’ve never interfered with us," Cutter said. (The Confucius Institute) has never told us that we have to teach a certain type of thing, or that we can’t teach other things or that we can’t sponsor X conference, we have never run into that problem.,” he said. “We do pretty much whatever we want to do.”

If censorship issues arose at ASU, Cutter said he would not stand by the Institute.

“We would definitely push back if we felt that we were being forced into a position where we were violating norms of academic freedom,” Cutter said. “ I think I would be among the first to say let's not do this anymore. But, that hasn’t happened so far.”


 Reach the reporter at isaac.windes@asu.edu or follow @isaacdwindes on Twitter.

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