In recent years, Confucius Institutes have sprung up on more than four hundred and fifty campuses worldwide, including nearly one hundred across the United States. At first glance, this seems like a benefit for everyone concerned. The colleges and universities receive considerable contributions from the Confucius Institutes’ head office in Beijing, including funds to cover the cost of set-up, the provision of Chinese-language instructors, and a cache of other resources. For their part, the Confucius Institutes are able to further their mission of spreading knowledge of Chinese language and culture.
But Marshall Sahlins argues that this seemingly innocuous arrangement conceals the more dubious mission of promoting the political influence of the Chinese government, as guided by the propaganda apparatus of the party-state. Drawing on reports in the media and conversations with those involved, Sahlins shows that the Confucius Institutes are a threat to the principles of academic freedom and integrity at the foundation of our system of higher education. Incidents of academic malpractice are disturbingly common, Sahlins shows. They range from virtually unnoticeable acts of self-censorship to the discouragement of visits from the Dalai Lama and publicly notorious cases like the scandal caused by the director-general of the Confucius Institutes at a recent meeting of the European Association for Chinese Studies when she had certain pages ripped out of the conference program and abstracts.
As prominent universities are persuaded by the promise of additional funding to allow Confucius Institutes on campus, they also legitimate them and thereby encourage the participation of other schools less able to resist Beijing’s inducements. But if these great institutions are to uphold the academic principles upon which they are founded, Sahlins convincingly argues that they must reverse this course, terminate their relations to the Confucius Institutes, and resume their obligation of living up to the idea of the university.