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Confucius Institutes: Trojan Horses with Chinese Characteristics

Confucius Institutes: Trojan Horses with Chinese Characteristics

Testimony Presented to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Presented March 28, 2012 at 2:30 p.m.

Confucius Institutes are described as non-profit public institutions aligned with the government of the People’s Republic
of China whose purpose is to promote Chinese language and culture,
as well as facilitate cultural exchanges. This seemingly benign
purpose leaves out a number of purposes both salient and sinister,
namely, sanitizing China’s image abroad, enhancing its “soft
power” globally, and creating a new generation of China
watchers who well-disposed towards the Communist

While the Confucius Institutes are sometimes compared to
France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, this is
misleading. Unlike the latter, Confucius Institutes are neither
independent from their government, nor are do they occupy their own
premises. Instead, they are located within established universities
and colleges around the world, and are directed and funded by the
so-called Office of Chinese Language Council International
(Hanban), located in Beijing, which answers in turn to the Ministry
of Education of the People’s Republic of China and, chiefly, to the
United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist
In fact, the Chairman of the Confucius Institute is none other than
Liu Yandong, who served as the head of the United Front Work
Department from 2002 to 2007.

The purpose of the United Front Work Department, it should be
noted, is subversion, cooption and control. During the Communist
revolution, it subverted and coopted a number of other political
parties, such as the Chinese Socialist Party, into serving the
interests of the Communist Party. After the establishment of the
PRC, it continued to control these parties, which were allowed to
exist on sufferance, albeit as hollow shells, to create the
illusion of “democracy” in China. That it has de
control over the Hanban suggests, more strongly than
anything else, what one of the chief purposes of the Confucius
Institutes are, namely, to subvert, coopt, and ultimately control
Western academic discourse on matters pertaining to China.

Let me say at the outset that I am particularly troubled by this
aspect of the Confucius Institute initiative, because of my own
experience in how the Chinese Party-State deals with its overseas
academic critics. Following my exposé of human rights abuses in
China’s one-child policy in the early eighties, the PRC, acting
through the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, put tremendous
pressure on my university, Stanford University, to deny me the
Ph.D. Beijing went so far as to threaten to abrogate its scholarly
exchange program with the U.S. unless I was, in its words,
“severely punished” for speaking out. In other words, I
know from personal experience how ruthless the CCP can be when it
comes to pursuing its own interests and how sycophantic, not to say
craven, some academic administrators can be.

History and Expansion

Since the first Confucius Institute opened its doors on 21
November 2004 in Seoul, South Korea, hundreds more have been
established in dozens of countries around the world. By October
2010, there were reportedly 322 Confucius Institutes and 337
Confucius Classrooms in secondary schools in 94 countries and
regions, with the highest concentration of Institutes in the United
States, Japan, and South
The goal announced by Hanban is to have 1,000 Confucius Institutes
in operation by
Chinese state media suggests that the quick expansion of the
institutes testifies to the irresistible influence of China in a
world “begging for the opening of Confucius
Institutes.” What the rapid expansion actually suggests is
that this is a major foreign policy initiative of the PRC, which
fact alone invites close scrutiny.

It is ironic that Communist leaders, who for nearly a century
vilified Confucius as the very embodiment of feudalism, should now
seize upon the name of the ancient Chinese sage, who lived from
551–479 BC, for their own purposes. It is characteristic of CCP
united front tactics, however, that broadly inclusive terms,
however hollow, be used to describe their efforts at subversion.
Confucius is, after all, a universally recognizable Chinese figure,
and an institute named after him does not evoke the distaste, even
revulsion, that would have greeted the names of more recent Chinese
political figures, such as the founder of the Chinese Communist
Party. How many universities — other than those in, say, North
Korea, Venezuela and Cuba — would have welcomed an institute named
after Mao Zedong, one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth
century? Chen Jinyu, Vice-Chairman of the Confucius Institute
Headquarters, emphasized the importance that the Party attached to
the choice of the name Confucius, saying “… brand name
means quality; brand name means returns. Those who enjoy more brand
names will enjoy higher popularity, reputation, more social
influence, and will therefore be able to generate more support from
In other words, the goals of the CI initiative include increasing
China’s popularity, reputation, and influence among the
nations of the world.

The ongoing controversies surrounding the operation of the
Confucius Institute program go far beyond its name, of course. They
include, as already mentioned, the troubling fact that Hanban is
effectively run by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. In
addition, there have been allegations of Confucius Institutes
undermining academic freedom at host universities, engaging in
industrial and military espionage, monitoring the activities of
Chinese students abroad, and attempting to advance the Chinese
Party-State’s political agenda on such issues as the Dalai Lama and
Tibet, Taiwan independence, the pro-democracy movement abroad, and
dissent within China itself.

According to Fabrice De Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a
number of individuals holding positions within the Confucius
Institute system have backgrounds in Chinese security agencies and
the United Front Work Department. Together, these agencies are
responsible for a number of activities in foreign countries,
including propaganda, the monitoring and control of Chinese
students abroad, the recruiting of agents among the Overseas
Chinese diaspora and sympathetic foreigners, and long-term

For these reasons, a number of universities have rejected
Hanban’s efforts to establish Confucius Institutes on their
campuses, including the University of Chicago and the University of

A Politicized Mission

That the mission of the Confucius Institutes is to extend the
Chinese Party-State’s campaign of “soft power” into the
educational establishments of foreign countries cannot be doubted.
No less a figure than Li Changchun, the propaganda chief of the
Chinese Communist Party and the 5th ranked member of the Standing
Committee of the Politburo, has been quoted as saying that the
Confucius Institutes are “an important part of China’s
overseas propaganda
If the CCP’s propaganda chief says that the Confucius Institutes
are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda
set-up,” they probably are.

The stated mission of the Confucius Institutes is, as to be
expected, far more innocuous. They claim to be engaged in promoting
knowledge of Chinese language and culture abroad, as well as
commercial and trade cooperation. Indeed, the director of the CI
program, Xu Lin, goes so far as to claim that the program was
started in response to a sudden uptick in interest in the Chinese
language around the world. In other words, China was simply
responding to a growing consumer market, rather than, say, engaging
in cultural diplomacy to strengthen China’s soft power abroad, or
seeking to proactively create positive perceptions of its

One other aspect of the Confucius Institutes deserves mention,
that is, that Hanban actually sends Chinese language teachers from
China to teach at the Confucius Institutes. As of 2011 there were
200 such teachers working in the United States.8 It goes without
saying that these teachers are carefully vetted for ideological
purity before being assigned to indoctrinate young Americans in a
“correct,” which is to say positive, understanding of
the Chinese Party-State and its growing role in the world, as well
as explaining to them why Chinese dissident groups abroad, such as
Tibetan independent activists, democracy groups and the Falun Gong,
must be opposed. It is naïve to think that teachers trained in the
PRC will limit themselves to teaching language and cultural
programs, while avoiding such controversial subjects as China’s
military buildup, its abysmal human rights record, and its disdain
for democracy. Such subjects invariably come up in the classroom,
and Beijing’s trained cadre of “language teachers” will
know exactly how to allay the concerns of their young and
impressionable charges.

It is understandably difficult to assess how successful the
Confucius Institutes have been in carrying out their politicized
mission to date, since neither the Chinese Party-State, nor their
American or Chinese employees, are eager to talk about this aspect
of their work. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the
presence of CIs has had a chilling effect on academic discourse.
As The Economist noted, “An online Confucius
Institute, also supported by the Chinese government, includes an
article noting the ‘active’ efforts of some unspecified
Confucius Institutes in opposing independence for Tibet and
Xinjiang, pro-democracy activism and the Falun Gong sect.”9

More specific criticisms have been leveled by Peng Ming-min, a
Taiwan independence activist and politician, who claims that
colleges and universities where a Confucius Institute is
established have to sign a contract in which they declare their
support for Beijing’s “one China” policy. In
consequence, the open discussion of Taiwan and Tibeten issues
is verboten at the institutes, he
Michael Nylan, professor of Chinese history at the University of
California at Berkeley, acknowledges “early missteps,”
such as insisting that universities adopt a policy that Taiwan is
part of China and attempting to block guest speakers critical of
China from campus events, but suggests that the Chinese government
is becoming “less
Note that Nylan does not deny that Hanban has abandoned its
political mission; only that they have become more subtle about

A closer look at the way the Confucius Institutes are organized
and funded only increases these concerns. The Chinese Party-State,
acting through Hanban and the Confucius Institute headquarters,
provides anywhere from $100,000 to several million dollars in
annual funding. The local university is nominally required to match
funding. Since this is generally provided in kind, however, by
providing campus facilities and office space, as well as
administrative and accounting services, there is little in the way
of out-of-pocket expenses for the recipient of Chinese

The Chinese Party-State claims to take a hands-off approach to
management, but does admit to providing “guidelines.”
The budget, too, is subject to approval by Hanban and the Confucius
Institute headquarters, which impose various restrictions on how
their funds may be used as well as earmarking certain funds for
The Confucius Institutes in the U.S. and elsewhere also answer to
China in another way as well. Each is paired up with a Chinese
university, and is governed by a board composed of roughly even
numbers of directors from this Chinese university, with the
remainder of the directors affiliated with the foreign

In addition to their local partner university Confucius
Institutes operate in co-operation with a Chinese partner
university. Many Institutes are governed by a board which is
composed of several members from the Chinese partner school and the
remainder of the members are affiliated with the local partner
university or are local individuals who are considered to be
“friends of China.” For example, one of the directors
of the Confucius Institute at the University of New South Wales is
a Chinese-Australian who is the President of the Australian Council
for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of
The board of directors in turn appoints the director in
consultation with the local partner

There are additional problems as well. Hanban specifies that
Chinese language instructors should be “Aged between 22 to
60, physical and mental healthy, no record of participation in
Falun Gong and other illegal organizations, and no criminal
Such discrimination against Falun Gong and, presumable, others who
have tried to exercise their rights to freedom of conscience,
assembly, speech, and association violates anti-discrimination laws
and international standards of human rights. Marci Hamilton, Paul
R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Yeshiva University in New York
City, commented that the policy is “unethical and illegal in
the free
I agree.

Because of these concerns, a number of countries, confronted
with the reality of growing Chinese aggressiveness, have banned or
restricted the establishment of Confucius Institutes. The Indian
Ministry of External Affairs opposed the establishment of Confucius
Institutes in universities, arguing that they were nothing more
than “a Chinese design to spread its ‘soft power’ —
widening influence by using culture as a propagational
The Japanese government has serious reservations as well. It is
telling that of 20 or so CIs that Hanban has been able to set up in
Japan, all were at private colleges. Government-funded public
universities have so far refused to play host to what is obviously
an ideologically driven political power play.

The final word belongs to James Paradise, who in an Asian
article notes that Confucius Institutes may be viewed
as Chinese “Trojan horses.” While ostensibly about
promoting the Chinese language and culture, he says, they are
“part of a broader soft power projection in which China is
attempting to win hearts and minds for political

Given that the Chinese Party-State does not share our democratic
institutions, nor our commitment to open markets, nor our
understanding of human rights, their purposes are antithetical to
ours. Should we really be allowing a cruel, tyrannical and
repressive regime to educate our young people?


Economist, China’s
Confucius Institutes: Rectification of Statues
, 20 Jan


News, ‘Madame
Liu Yandong, State Councilor and Chair of the Confucius Institute
Headquarters Delivers a New Year’s Address to Confucius Institutes
, 1 March 2010. Accessed 26 March 2012. Fabrice
De Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, “Nest of Spies: the
starting truth about foreign agents at work within Canada’s
borders,” HarperCollins Canada, 2009. pp 160–162.


Institute: promoting language, culture and friendliness
Xinhua, 2 October 2006.

Don Starr
(2009), Chinese
Language Education in Europe: the Confucius
, European Journal of Education
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 78–79, citation at

Fabrice de Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya,
“Nest of Spies: the starting truth about foreign agents at
work within Canada’s borders,” HarperCollins Canada, 2009. pp

A message
from Confucius; New ways of projecting soft power
,, 22 Oct 2009.

Linda Tsung and Ken Cruickshank
(2011). Teaching
and Learning Chinese in Global Contexts
. Continuum
International Publishing Group. p. 151.

The Economist, China’s
Confucius Institutes: Rectification of statues
, “Asia
Banyan”, January 20, 2011.

Peng Ming-min (2011), China
picks pockets of academics worldwide
, Taipei Times
Tue, May 31, 2011, p. 8.

Golden (2011)

for the Administration of Confucius Institute Headquarters
. Hanban-News. Retrieved 3 July 2011.

of Directors”
. University of Buffalo College of Arts and
Sciences. Retrieved 28 March
2012. “Governing
and Advisory Boards”
. Regents of the University of Minnesota.
Retrieved 28 March
2012. “Our
. Confucius Institute at the University of New South
Whales. Retrieved March 28 2012.

message from Confucius: New ways of projecting soft
. The Economist. 22 October 2009. Retrieved 28
March 2012.

Accessed 28 March 2012.

Robertson, US
Universities, Confucius Institutes Import
, The Epoch Times, 24 Aug

Chinese in India, says government news
, Domain-b, 8 Oct 2009.
also, How
to be a cultural superpower
, Times of India, 22 Nov

James F. Paradise
(2009), China
and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in
Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power
, Asian Survey 49.4:

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