China's Confucius Institutes Might Be Closing, But They Succeeded
Tufts University recently became the seventy-second American university to announce plans to close its Confucius Institute. Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-backed centers that entangle colleges and universities with the Chinese Communist Party, have been closing around the country. Already Bryant University, in Rhode Island, has become the seventy-third. Tufts' Confucius Institute will finish out its programming this summer and close upon the expiration of the university's contract in September.
Tufts got special attention because it had been the site of a thirteen-week protest by the local Tibetan, Taiwanese, Hongkonger, Uyghur, and Chinese population. Some 600 concerned citizens and activists had sent Tufts President Anthony Monaco letters calling for the Confucius Institute's closure. The university's decision appeared a major reversal, since, in 2019, the university proudly renewed its Confucius Institute, declaring that a university committee studied the Confucius Institute and found "no evidence of undue influence, suppression of academic freedom or censorship at Tufts."
Why the about-face? Local protesters deserve credit, to be sure. But the reality is that the Chinese government is moving away from Confucius Institutes as a tool of influence in the West, and it offered Tufts an easy out. Tufts could close the Confucius Institute without offending Chinese government sponsors because the Chinese government isn't prioritizing Confucius Institutes anymore.
That's not to say that the Chinese Communist Party is pulling out of American higher education. Far from it. American academia, with its cutting-edge technology, access to American thought leaders, and ability to shape future generations of American citizens, remains a top target for the Chinese government. But China knows that Confucius Institutes have become politically toxic, and it has shifted its focus toward other means of engagement.
Last year the Chinese government reorganized and rebranded Confucius Institutes, and I predicted colleges and universities would start to walk away from the name as well. Already, Asia Society, a private nonprofit that cosponsors a K-12 version of Confucius Institutes, has renamed its program the “Chinese Language Partner Network.” Colleges and universities, too, are busily "closing" their Confucius Institutes, only to replace them with other, substantially similar, forms of partnership with the Chinese government. Sometimes these universities establish new China-focused initiatives, retaining some Confucius Institute staff and programs.
For example, the University of Michigan continued to receive funding from the Hanban, the Chinese government agency responsible for Confucius Institutes, even after its Confucius Institute closed, according to foreign gift disclosures. Other universities, like Tufts, are establishing new partnerships with the same Chinese universities that were their partners in hosting Confucius Institutes. Tufts has said it is closing its Confucius Institute in order "to focus on expanding and deepening its relationship with [Beijing Normal University]." My organization, the National Association of Scholars, is pursuing an in-depth research project called "When Confucius Institutes Close" to document just how widespread this closure-in-name-only trend is.
Few colleges and universities close Confucius Institutes for any of the reasons urged by state and federal officials. I maintain a list of all closed Confucius Institutes and the reasons universities give. A university official who cites national security is a rarity. Only two—at Texas A&M and the University of South Florida—did so. Even rarer is one who cites academic freedom. Not a single one did. UCLA said it closed its Confucius Institute to focus "on pressing world issues, such as the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic." The most common reasons are to protect federal funding (the National Defense Authorization Act bans certain Department of Defense grants to universities with Confucius Institutes) and to establish new ties with Chinese universities.
Confucius Institutes succeeded. Yes, they are "closing" nationwide, but it is increasingly with the Chinese government's blessing. The Chinese government launched Confucius institutes to establish close ties within American higher education, ties that would enable it to spread propaganda but also exert influence. Confucius Institutes helped build those relationships, and now having succeeded, they fall away unneeded, like a scaffold.
We still see some universities fighting to keep their Confucius Institutes. Troy University in Alabama convinced the state legislature to appropriate $6 million for a Confucius Institute building, and foolishly signed a contract obliging it to repay 100% of China's investment in the Confucius Institute, plus "legal expense" and "indemnity for defamation," if the university breaks its contract early. The university's lobbyists have sought to stall a bill to bar Confucius Institutes in the state.
But overall, the United States is headed toward a post-Confucius Institute world. The Chinese Communist Party knows that and is prepared. Chinese government influence is appearing under new names, in new guises. Our colleges and universities must have the strength of character to resist—a strength that, so far, Tufts does not have.
Policymakers and those dedicated protesters will have to hold Tufts accountable since it—and much of American higher education with it—is content to remain in the Chinese Communist Party's pocket.