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.

A detailed analysis, 46 pages long, tells a different story than the one seen in too many headlines, in which the GAO “analyzed 90 written agreements obtained from U.S. colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes, and interviewed institute personnel and school officials at 10 schools with Confucius Institutes – which were diverse in terms of geography, size, public or private status, and other characteristics. GAO also interviewed officials the Department of Defense, Education and State; researchers, representatives from higher education associations; and officials at schools that closed or declined to open an institute.”

The GAO report notes,

“You asked us to review Confucius Institutes on college and university campuses in the United States. This report describes (1) how Confucius Institutes are established, operated, and funded; (2) the contents of written agreements between U.S. schools and Hanban and how the institutes operate in practice; and (3) perspectives of school officials, researchers, and others on benefits, concerns, and suggestions relating to the establishment and operation of Confucius Institutes.”

While the report notes criticism of the programs, the framework detailed paints a very different picture and notes that those actually PARTICIPATING in the program praise the program for providing language and cultural exchange as well as a way to offer U.S. students with a means to study or travel abroad as part of their educations.

The following points note – in the words of the GAO – how the Confucius Institutes actually work on and with U.S. colleges and universities.

“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. For example, at some schools that were part of our review a professor in an academic department approached campus leadership with the idea to establish one. At other schools, school officials told us that the school president initiated or strongly supported the creation of a Confucius Institute. Officials at one school noted that Hanban had approached several area schools looking to open a Confucius Institute specifically in their city.

“Schools sign agreements with Hanban to establish Confucius Institutes. Almost all of the agreements are valid for 5 years, most with an automatic renewal period of another 5 years.”

Flow charts available in the report.

“Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools are primarily funded by Hanban and the U.S. school, according to agreements we reviewed and school officials we interviewed. Hanban generally provides start-up funds, annual funds, Confucius Institute teachers and their salaries, and teaching materials … The U.S. school hosting a Confucius Institute generally provides annual funds matching Hanban’s contribution, as well as physical space and administrative support, according to the agreements we reviewed.”

“GAO reviewed 90 agreements and found they describe generally similar activities, funding, and management. For example, the institutes primarily receive funding from Hanban and the U.S. school, and do not receive direct U.S. federal funding.”

“According to officials at the Departments of Defense, Education, and State, no federal funding from these agencies is used to support or operate Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools. In addition, no school officials at any of the 10 case study schools we interviewed reported receiving or using federal funding for their Confucius Institute. Further, none of the 90 agreements we reviewed mentioned any U.S. federal funding for the Confucius Institute.”

“GAO also examined the agreements for language on application of school polices to the institutes, curriculum, and confidentiality, among other things. One-third of the agreements explicitly addressed how U.S. school policies apply to institutes, and a few addressed curriculum. Officials GAO interviewed at case study schools noted that U.S. school policies, including policies on matters such as curriculum, apply to institutes at their schools, though we found schools vary from one another in institute activities and use of resources, including teachers and teaching materials.”

“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.”

“Officials cited increased resources for Chinese language and cultural programs as among key institute benefits.”

“Nearly all of the agreements (84 of 90) between U.S. schools and Hanban that we reviewed contained a list of the same five activities that Confucius Institutes can implement … The activities Confucius Institutes can carry out, according to these agreements are: (1) teaching Chinese language; (2) training Chinese language instructors;(3) organizing the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi exam, a Chinese language proficiency test; (4) providing information and consultation services about Chinese culture or education; and (5) conducting language and cultural exchange activities.”

“Some researchers and others have expressed concern that the presence of an institute could constrain campus activities and classroom content. For example, several researchers stated that schools with Confucius Institutes might avoid hosting events on topics that could include criticism of China, such as Taiwan or Tibet, so as to not offend Chinese partners. However, school officials offered examples to illustrate that these various concerns did not apply to their institute. 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.”

“Officials at case study schools acknowledged these concerns and discussed how they sought to maintain control over curriculum and classroom content. Several officials at these schools noted the importance of maintaining academic control over the Confucius Institute and ensuring there was freedom to discuss or study any topics at the institute and on campus. Officials at 7 of 10 case study schools explicitly stated that they felt the U.S. school maintained full control over curriculum. No school officials we interviewed at case study schools stated that they felt they did not have full control over their curriculum. Additionally, none of the 10 case study schools offered credit-bearing courses through the institute, or used Hanban-supplied materials for credit-bearing courses offered through the school’s language department. Instead, officials at these schools told us that any Chinese language credit-bearing courses at the school used curriculum and materials developed and selected by the language department.

“In addition, officials from half of the case study schools stated that because the Confucius Institute is not an academic center, it could not influence curriculum, activities, or events on campus.”

“Most officials emphasized that while institute teachers often come from the Chinese partner university, and are referred by the partner or Hanban, the U.S. school makes the final hiring selection.”

“School officials, researchers, and others made several suggestions to improve the agreements associated with Confucius Institutes, as well as protect campuses against undue Chinese influence.” To learn more about their point of view, read the report here:

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.