The closing of a Confucius Institute in Chicago is the latest in a number of hardships and controversies facing the international Chinese language and cultural center as it celebrated its tenth year of operations last month.
The University of Chicago decided not to renew its five-year contract with Hanban, reported Inside Higher Ed, an educational magazine. Hanban is the colloquial name for the Office of Chinese Language Council International, the quasi-governmental agency that operates the Confucius Institute.
One-hundred professors had signed a petition protesting the the university’s involvement with the Confucius Institute back in April. The professors cited a lack of academic control that had resulted in a relationship with the Confucius Institute that was not “consistent with the intellectual principles and values of the university.”
However, the University of Chicago made the decision to terminate their relationship with the Confucius Institute because of ”recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”
READ: Parents Protest Opening of New Confucius Institute in Toronto
Xu Lin, the director of Hanban and the chief executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, had made the disparaging remarks in the Jiefang Daily in response to the professors’ petition. The New York Times reported:
“Many people have felt Xu Lin’s toughness,” The Jiefang Daily wrote admiringly, citing a letter it said Ms. Xu wrote to the University of Chicago’s president in response to the petition.
“In just one sentence she said, ‘Should your college decide to withdraw, I’ll agree,’” the article said. In Chinese, that sentence carries connotations of a challenge. It continued: “Her attitude made the other side anxious. The school quickly responded that it will continue to properly manage the Confucius Institute.”
In the ten years since it first opened in South Korea, Confucius Institutes have spread around the world with around 1,000 branches. However, Confucius Institutes have also brought controversy and accusations wherever they have gone. As noted in a report written by Tao Xie and published in the Journal for Contemporary China, Confucius Institutes tend to open in areas where where public opinion of China is low, particularly in North America and Europe. The institutes are now in decline amid accusations of censorship, academic freedom, and espionage.
In Canada, the Toronto District School Board has seen the number of Chinese students decline following a decision by school trustees to delay its partnership with the Confucius Institute. Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos said:
We should never have got involved in this relationship from the very beginning [with the Confucius Institute]. Now that it has happened, it has put us in a very precarious and difficult position going forward vis-à-vis our relations with probably our largest target market for international student recruitment.
Last December, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a statement urging universities and colleges to sever ties with Confucius Institutes in Canada. “They restrict the free discussion of topics Chinese authorities deem controversial and should have no place on our campuses,” said James Turk, CAUT executive director:
Several Canadian universities had already terminated their agreements with the Confucius Institute even before the Toronto School Board decision. The University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, the University of Manitoba and McMaster University in Hamilton have all closed their Confucius Institutes.
Similar closings and controversies surrounding the Confucius Institute have occurred throughout the USA, Israel, Australia, Portugal, and even in neighboring Vietnam where it was called a “Trojan horse and propaganda machine.”
But despite the rhetoric, Hanban head Xu Lin remains confident. Lu said the institutes will continue to operate:
The US government hurt our feelings, but Confucius Institutes across Europe have done a great job, especially with cultural promotion, which is not surprising given Europe’s rich history and culture.
[h/t China Digital Times]