Controversy and concern over Chinese-funded program

Hannah Lee, Editor-in-Chief

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There’s been a wide array of concerns as the FBI and CIA have been conducting investigations into the Confucius Institute which is located on over 100 campuses across the United States, which did include the University of North Florida. On August 14, UNF decided not to renew their five-year contract with the Confucius Institute.

The program is designed to teach Chinese language and culture across the world. Over the past 14 years, Confucius Institutes have seen their way onto many college campuses and even public school systems nationwide. However, this seemingly academic institution has been deemed substantially controversial as it has been banned from several college campuses.

More recently, on Aug. 13, President Donald Trump signed the new National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits federal funding to Confucius Institutes on campuses.

In the legislation Trump signed, any university using both Pentagon resources alongside any Chinese-funded program, like the Confucius Institute, will have to secure a Pentagon waiver if they want to keep both.

The classes taught at UNF are typically Chinese introduction courses for no credit. According to the director of UNF’s Confucius Institute, Ronghua Ouyang, as many as 20 people will take a full course during the fall or spring semesters. Classes are free to UNF students.

The Confucius Institute is run by Hanban, a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal of the institute is to provide Chinese language and culture classes worldwide, according to Hanban’s website. The first institute in the U.S. opened in 2004 at the University of Maryland, College Park.

What is the main concern regarding the Confucius Institute? Censorship and propaganda from the Chinese government.

Back in November 2011, Li Changchun, a former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest body of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that the Confucius Institute was important for their party.

“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power,” Changchun said. “The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

On Feb. 5, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to four Florida public universities urging them to end their contracts with their respective Confucius Institutes. He argued the Confucius Institute was part of an aggressive Chinese program to infiltrate American classrooms, stifle free speech and subvert free expression.

The University of West Florida decided to not renew its contract with its Confucius Institute in May. While UWF did not want to give specific reasons why, school officials said they made their minds up back in December before Rubio’s letter came out.

At a March 1 Faculty Association Meeting, an anonymous question was posed in regards to Rubio’s letter. Former UNF President John Delaney responded, stating that while he recognizes the concerns, there was no evidence for them.

“We found that experiences were not consistent across all institutions. Recognizing this, we have been sensitive to the criticisms, but have found no evidence to date any abridgment of free speech by UNF’s Confucius Institute,” Delaney said.

The University of South Florida and Miami-Dade College still have Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

One of the attractions of bringing on a Confucius Institute is the benefit of money. Many institutes will pay for their own teachers and will provide funding to help set up the Institute on campus.

According to the contract between the Confucius Institute and UNF, the obligations of the Confucius Institute Headquarters is to provide $150,000 for “start-up funds, and provide a set amount of annual funds according to needs.”

UNF, as a part of the contract, needed to provide a fixed office and space to teach, necessary administrative personnel, assist the Chinese party on the visa application, open a special bank account where the Confucius Institute and the university can have access to it, and provide a set amount of annual funding.

The idea for the Confucius Institute to come to UNF came from Chinese and non-Chinese faculty. The university had to apply to Hanban to be considered for the program. Since there was already a long-standing relationship between UNF and Shaanxi Normal University in China, it was easier to form a Confucius Institute.

Delaney signed the first contract between UNF and Hanban in 2014 — the same year the University of Chicago and Penn State University canceled their contracts. The closing in Chicago came after a petition, signed by over 100 faculty members, calling for the closure in concerns of academic censorship.

Confucius Contract 2014

It was announced on Aug. 14 that UNF would not be renewing its contract and it will officially expire next year in February.

“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,” the statement from the university said. “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.”

There is a current bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6010) pointing out the Confucius Institute directly and requiring them to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. This would mean that they would have to disclose all their financial contributions.

The House bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith of N.J. There is also a Senate bill (S. 2583) that goes along the same lines as the House bill and is sponsored by Rubio. Both bills are waiting to be heard in their respective committees.

On June 27, it was reported by The Daily Beast that the Confucius Institute Headquarters and China’s ZTE Corporation have been working together for more than a decade. The reason why this is important to know is because ZTE Corp. has recently been under intense scrutiny by the U.S. government for illegally trading with Iran and North Korea. U.S. government agencies are now forbidden from buying or using certain products, components or services from ZTE Corp. The act goes into effect over the next two years, but the ban is currently in place.

ZTE Corp. has helped sponsor events, co-found an institute, and provide technology for the Confucius Institute Headquarters. This technology donation has been viewed by critics as worrisome as voice-recognition and keyword-identification in those classroom settings could be used as surveillance. This is backed up by a 2015 report in Contemporary World magazine, a monthly publication that is overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and the State Press and Public Administration. The report states that the Confucius Institute is a “data station” for China.

“The ‘data station’ can be in various forms, such as e-commerce, Confucius Institute, telecommunications, passenger transportation, chain hotels, financial payment institutions and logistics agencies,” the report said. “Initially., these raw ecological data have a low-value density, but they will play an important role in foreign policy decisions and corporate decision-making through data experts and ‘One Belt, One Road’ experts.”

Is there any concrete evidence that Confucius Institutes are propaganda tools by the Chinese government? Not directly. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t seen as a concern by higher officials.

Back in February, FBI director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that the FBI had been conducting an investigation into the Confucius Institute for some time. 

While the Confucius Institute is designed to teach students across the world Chinese language and culture by promoting insight into the country’s long history, the fact the program is often secluded, quiet and has a troubled history has lead the Confucius Institute to be a key argument for politicians in their fight against Chinese propaganda.


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