The U.S. Government’s Surprising Defense of the Confucius Institute Programs

The GAO Report that Too Few have Read

With all the conversation about possible undue influence from Chinese officials on school-based, locally administrated Confucius Institute programs, a surprising defense of the program’s independence can be found in a GAO (Governmental Accountability Office) report issued in February 2019 examining the agreements and operations after more than a year of study, and submitted to the U.S. House and Senate for consideration. It’s a sleeper report well worth reading. Here are 4 major takeaways:

1. Bringing a CI to campuses begins when U.S. schools reach out:

Confucius Institutes are not an attempt initiated by the Chinese Government to infiltrate College Campuses. In fact, the programs are initiated by U.S. schools. From the report:

“Confucius Institutes in the United States that we reviewed were established as a partnership between a U.S. school and a Chinese college or university, funded and arranged in part by Hanban. Various parties at the U.S. schools, including faculty and school presidents, initiated the process to establish a Confucius Institute.”

2. The CI programs ultimately report to the heads of the schools in which they operate.

Contrary to popular belief, CI programs report directly to the president of the campus they are housed on. They do not report back to China nor do they answer to any headquarters here in the U.S.

3. The U.S. Schools control the curriculum and content:

The Chinese government does not control the curriculum of individual Confucius Institute programs. Directly from the report:

“While most agreements we reviewed do not specify how U.S. school policies applied to the Confucius Institute, school officials we interviewed indicated U.S. school personnel control curriculum and teaching materials. Confucius Institutes are managed by boards and directors, which include U.S. school officials.”

4. The U.S.-Based Programs Have Freely Talked about Topics Less Favorable to the Chinese Government:

U.S. based program have been able to host discussions on issues that could be considered sensitive to the Chinese Government. Hanban has not placed restrictions on the types of topics Confucius Institutes can cover. Directly from the report:

“For example, officials at 10 case study schools told GAO that they do not use materials provided by Hanban for credit-bearing courses, and school officials stated that Hanban did not place limitations on events of any type. Nonetheless, school officials, researchers, and others suggested ways schools could improve institute management, such as by renegotiating agreements to clarify U.S. schools’ authority and making agreements publicly available.”

When seen through the eyes of U.S. professors, CI directors and participants, the CI program shows itself to be a locally managed resource for individuals and schools interested in making a connection to another culture. Allowing misplaced frustrations to be directed against a learning program will strip a resource to students who deserve to have access to language skills that will make them more marketable in an increasingly global economy.