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Influence of Confucius Institutes on US college campuses has some concerned

  • The University of New Hampshire has hosted a Confucius Institute on its Durham campus since 2010.
  • UNH international student population has doubled in five years
  • FBI says Chinese operatives active at scores of American universities

Amid all the focus on Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process, some officials are warning about influence by a different world power: China.

And one target of their concern is the proliferation of Confucius Institutes on more than 100 American college campuses – including the University of New Hampshire.

The institutes, which teach Chinese language, history and culture, are funded by China’s ministry of education.

In a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told FBI Director Christopher Wray he believes that Confucius Institutes are “complicit” in Chinese government efforts “to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half-truths designed to present Chinese history, government or official policy in the most favorable light.”

Wray replied that the FBI shares the concern and has been “watching that development for a while.”

“We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching warily and, in certain instances, have developed, you know, appropriate investigative steps,” Wray said. He did not elaborate and the hearing moved on to other topics.

UNH has hosted a Confucius Institute on its Durham campus since 2010. The partnership came under fire from UNH faculty in the past, but the controversy died down after UNH took steps to address their concerns.

Yige Wang has been co-director of the Confucius Institute at UNH from the start; he’s employed by UNH. He says the CI here is not what critics think it is.

There are UNH classes in Chinese language and culture, study-abroad trips, arts presentations and teaching partnerships with local school districts, including Portsmouth and Oyster River.

Wang said China “is going through a tremendous transformation and that’s why it’s great to have this kind of people-to-people interaction and exchange.”

“There’s really a lot we can learn from China and China can learn from the United States, and we want to promote that kind of relationship,” he said.

Four years ago, when the CI contract was up for renewal, some UNH faculty members raised concerns about its funding, purpose and policies.

Deanna Wood was president of the UNH chapter of the American Association of University Professors back then. She recalled the primary concerns were about academic freedom for CI instructors and the lack of transparency in the CI contract between UNH and its Chinese partners.

The simplest solution, Wood wrote in a 2014 memo, was for UNH to hire its own faculty to teach Chinese language, history and culture. “We do not rely on any other sovereign state to provide teaching and research in languages and cultures and there is no compelling reason to do so in the case of China,” she wrote.

The contract was renewed in 2015, and since then, UNH has hired a tenure-track professor, independent of CI, who supervises the CI instructors and chooses the curriculum and textbooks, according to Wang. The university also created an eight-member advisory board that reviews CI programs.

And instead of Chinese authorities selecting the teachers that come here, they are screened and selected by a three-member committee at UNH.

Michael Ferber is a professor of English and humanities at UNH; he chaired the academic affairs committee that issued a 2014 report critical of the CI. He said their concerns “had nothing to do with espionage but with academic freedom.”

“We feared that CI staff would stifle or deflect discussion of controversial subjects and would be reluctant to speak their own minds if they knew they differed with the official government line,” he said.

Another concern was the funding, he said. “The Confucius Institute is pretty much a subsidiary of the Chinese government,” he said.

Wang, 55, grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution and remembers “singing the party songs and all that.” He came here as a graduate student and stayed, teaching for 20 years in public schools before coming to UNH.

China does not allow dual citizenship, so when Wang became a U.S. citizen in 1990, he said, “They shredded my Chinese passport.”

The CI teachers he meets today are a different breed, he said. “They’re young and they are educated,” he said. “I think they have more western influence than my generation. In my generation, we never had the chance.”

Wang said controversial topics likely would not come up during basic language classes. But he said UNH encourages CI instructors to speak their minds.

“They can say whatever they want,” he said. “This is part of the spirit of academic freedom here.”

Wang said the relationship between UNH and its Chinese partner, Chengdu University, is a two-way street. UNH has trained its deans and department heads, and UNH students have both taught and studied in China.

Corinna McElwain, 21, is a senior at UNH. She’s been studying Mandarin since she was 6 years old; her parents adopted her from China and wanted to expose her to the culture, she said.

Last year, she spent five months in China on a CI study abroad trip. “It was amazing,” she said.

The American students soon learned that the Chinese government blocks sites such as Facebook and YouTube. But, she said, they traveled freely and she got to use her language skills every day. “I loved it. I want to go back,” she said.

McElwain said she’s never felt her CI teachers have to be careful about what they say. “I think that they’re normal people who have very little to do with the government,” she said. “Normal people living normal lives, just like us.”

At the recent Senate hearing, Rubio also asked Wray about “the counter-intelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in sciences and mathematics.”

Wray said the FBI is monitoring “the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting …” And he said “the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues.”

Ferber said there’s been talk over the years that staff at some CIs “might be spies,” but to his knowledge, no case has ever been brought. “It’s just a fear that there’s so many of them over here and all over the world that some of them might be spies,” he said.

There have never been any reports of “mischief or misbehavior” by CI staff here, Ferber said. And he said he doesn’t think anyone at UNH is naive about the arrangement. “I think the whole thing’s been pretty well ventilated.”

Wang said a UNH committee will undertake a “thorough review” next year to decide whether to extend, terminate or revise the CI contract. And he said he hopes the controversy caused by Wray’s remarks may end up having a positive effect on the UNH institute. “I look at this as a good opportunity for us to let more people know how we operate and what we do and how we do it,” he said.

If anyone is being influenced in the partnership, Wang said, it’s likely to be the young Chinese teachers who come here and get a taste of American academic freedom. It’s the Chinese government that should be worried, he said. “You’re sending a few people to the U.S. to work and they will come back, probably changed,” he said.

Ferber agreed. “I don’t think it’s part of a tightly run army of conspirators,” he said. “I think it’s a huge bureaucracy.”

Still, he said, “I think we were right to be concerned, and we’re right to stay vigilant about this.”


©2018 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)

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