The University of North Florida has announced it will cut ties with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-funded education program designed to promote Chinese language and culture abroad. This decision was made following criticism from lawmakers who say the Confucius Institute is really a propaganda tool of the Chinese government intent on brainwashing America’s college students.
The Confucius Institute at UNF is located deep within the campus maze of buildings, courtyards and lakes. The Institute itself is nothing more than a series of classrooms along a quiet hallway. The door to the darkened room is locked. Inside are stacks of cardboard boxes with Chinese writing on them and a portrait of Chinese philosopher Confucius. On one wall hangs a gold plaque that identifies this humble section of Honors Hall as the Confucius Institute. Emails and phone calls to academics associated with the institute have gone unanswered. The UNF administration has said little. University spokesperson Joanna Norris provided this statement in an email:
After careful consideration by Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, the University has decided to begin the process of terminating contracts with the Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and Shaanxi Normal University. UNF began the collaboration in 2014, with the goal of providing Chinese language and culture programs, language proficiency testing and mutual understanding and awareness of culture between China and the United States. After reviewing the classes, activities and events sponsored over the past four years and comparing them with the mission and goals of the University, it was determined that they weren’t aligned. UNF is now informing partners of the intent to terminate the agreement, with a transition period ending in February of 2019, which fulfills the University’s legal obligation to provide six-month’s notice. Additionally, UNF is informing the partners of plans to return all unused funds.
Some supporters of the decision argue that the Confucius Institute is a Chinese propaganda tool. Others say it’s a clandestine spy network intent on stealing research and technology from American universities. Critics contend that UNF crumbled under the weight of political pressure and anti-Chinese fear tactics.
Wen Raiti believes this was a political decision. Raiti is the former president of the Jacksonville Chinese Association, a nonprofit volunteer group affiliated with the UNF Confucius Institute. At her restaurant, House of Leaf & Bean on Beach Boulevard, she explains that Jacksonville’s Chinese community is a small, close-knit group that, until recently, included the institute. Raiti has taken on the local role of defending the institute and criticizing UNF’s decision to eliminate the program.
“This is disturbing to us who live here,” says Raiti. “I participate in the political process and civil engagement. I would not want my sisters and brothers to be accused of being spies. Not everyone is part of the central government. A lot of people are just like us, they are ordinary people. A lot of people have dissatisfaction with what [China’s] government has done. I do not feel like I have to restrain myself or what I say about the Chinese government.”
“I think it’s pretty absurd to think that all [Chinese] students are spies,” says Wen Raiti’s husband, Jon, an American who lived in China for three years and frequently returns there on business. “I think there’s probably some, but not all. So you’re painting the entire canvas with the same giant brush. I would suspect that it’s a gross simplification.”
UNF is not the first university to end its relationship with the Confucius Institute. Pennsylvania State and University of Chicago jettisoned the program after complaints surfaced that the institute was using its convenient location on college campuses to promote a pro-Beijing agenda. June Teufel Dreyer, who teaches Chinese government and foreign policy at Ohio’s Miami University, told the New York Times in a 2012 interview, “You’re told not to discuss the Dalai Lama–or to invite the Dalai Lama to campus. Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military buildup, factional fights inside the Chinese leadership–these are all off-limits.”
Today, there are more than 100 Confucius Institutes operating on college campuses throughout the U.S. and approximately 500 worldwide. Each location is overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education known colloquially as Hanban, or the Chinese Language Council International.
Government-sponsored programs that promote culture and language abroad are not unique. The Goethe-Institut is a German-sponsored nonprofit organization that promotes German language and culture. The United Kingdom has the British Council. France has Alliance Française. But the difference between these programs and the Confucius Institute is that China’s program is located on college campuses. The others are independent organizations that operate outside of the university system.
In exchange for allowing the Confucius Institute to set up shop on campus, Hanban reportedly provides a large sum of money to its host university. The airfares and salaries of Chinese teachers are supplied by the Chinese government, as well as textbooks and videos to facilitate instruction. In 2009, Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo in Beijing, called the Confucius Institutes an “important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
Last February, Senator Marco Rubio wrote a letter to UNF and three other Florida colleges advocating for the elimination of the Confucius Institute. Rubio characterizes the program as a way for China to undermine American policy goals and disseminate propaganda.
“There is mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use ‘Confucius Institutes’ and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies,” wrote Rubio.
Even after Rubio sent this letter, it seemed at first that UNF had no intention of eliminating the program’s presence on campus. UNF’s then-president John Delaney was against it, telling The Florida Times-Union in February that the institute’s professors provided Chinese language programs and had little to no influence on the political opinions of students. Delaney argued that the Confucius Institute’s inclusion on campus had been approved by a university committee and championed by American-born Chinese professors. And since its partnership with UNF began in 2014, there had been no reports of students or faculty complaining about the institute.
“They won’t necessarily criticize their country, but you may get a little bit of insight into the culture of their country,” Delaney told the T-U at the time.
So why did UNF suddenly change its mind and decide to get rid of the Confucius Institute? One reason might be Delaney’s departure from the university and the arrival of the current UNF President David Szymanski. Another might be the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, a law that allocates $716 billion in defense spending. An amendment added to the bill by Texas Senator Ted Cruz includes requirements that discourage American colleges and universities from using Chinese government-funded language programs. The bill was signed into law by President Trump on Aug. 13. One day later, on Aug. 14, UNF announced that the university’s Confucius Institute would close.
“I welcome the decision of @UofNorthFlorida to close its Confucius Institute,” said Senator Rubio on Twitter. “There is growing & well-founded concern about these Chinese Communist Party-funded Institutes. I continue to urge other FL universities to follow suit.”