Xi’s Reach: Propaganda and Self-Censorship on Campus

Here in the United States, we lack an official government mouthpiece; a publication solely dedicated to trumpeting the governments every action. Fortunately, China’s Xinhua News, China Daily, People’s Daily, and China Global Television Network all trumpet their government’s successes around the world. Some of these reported successes are Confucius Institutes. Let’s take a look at their history, and what a Chinese government approved version of education is like. 

First championed by Politburo member Li Changchun in 2011, the institutes are, in his words, “an appealing brand for expanding [Chinese] culture abroad…the Confucius brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.” The institutes are overseen by the Ministry of Education, informally known as Hanban, and are part of a propaganda initiative that has $10 billion in funding behind it. The institutes espouse a Beijing-approved version of Chinese culture and history, ignoring human rights concerns and teaching that Tibet and Taiwan “indisputably belong to mainland China,” a la Manifest Destiny. 

Minister of Propaganda Liu Yushan celebrated the institutes’ expansion across the world in People’s Daily: “We should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issuers such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong…we must establish overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.” 

To Mr. Changchun’s credit, the Chinese government has found out that many American colleges desire one thing above all: money. Exploiting a reduction in college funding from the American government, many Confucius Institutes bring millions of dollars for the universities that accept them into their communities. As Politico reports, colleges get to outsource Chinese language instruction, while still collecting their free money. This has led to Confucius Institutes being established across the United States and a complete list can be found here. According to a report put together by Dr. Marshall Sahlins, teachers within the institutes are carefully vetted by Hanban, and need to possess “a strong sense of mission, glory, responsibility,” and to explicitly ban discussion of human rights in China or the Tiananmen Square massacre. If a student raises “uncomfortable questions about the political status of Tibet,” Haban orders instructors to refocus the discussion on Tibet’s natural beauty or indigenous culture. That’s not exactly a place for academic freedom or freedom of inquiry.

Several controversies have marked Confucius Institutes’ government propaganda in recent years. When Matteo Mecacci of the International Campaign for Tibet requested a sample of course materials from an institute in Washington D.C., he received “books and DVDs from the State Council Information Office, whose main function is to produce propaganda products.” One student at the University of Kentucky’s Confucius Institute recalls one of the faculty responding to a question about air pollution in China by stating that “reports of air pollution were misinformation reported by U.S. media.” 

Another controversy involved a slip up by Hanban officials in their vetting process. Sonia Zhao, a Chinese national, was dispatched to McMaster University in Canada to teach Chinese language. Unbeknownst to Hanban, she was a practitioner of Falun Gong (a Buddhist spiritual movement), and she was ordered to renounce her faith in order to secure her permanent employment. She later quit, arguing that McMaster University was “giving legitimization to discrimination.” Her contract stated that she was “forbidden from joining illegal organizations like the Falun Gong.” 

Under Canadian and U.S. law, such discrimination because of religious beliefs is illegal, and McMaster University later shuttered the institute due to its “hiring practices.” At North Carolina State, a visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was scuttled by the university in order to avoid “hurting strong relationships [they] were developing with China.” Confucius Institutes are also expanding into primary and secondary education, with many Confucius Classrooms setting up shop in education systems around the world, most notably the City of Chicago Public School System.

Luckily, public officials and academics across the world are starting to wake up to this trend of cultural imperialism in higher education. What is the purpose of college if it does not challenge, reform, and inform the way you see the world? The American Association of University Professors recommended in 2014 that “universities cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes” unless several reforms are made, including standardizing freedom of inquiry for all faculty in the institutes and making the contracts between the institutes public. 

The United State’s Senate Committee on Investigations published a report on their recommendations to the Department of Education and the State Department on how to address the Confucius Institute’s Communist Party-approved programs. Committee Chairman Rob Portman (R-OH) and ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE) agreed that Confucius Institutes are “part of a broader strategy to export China’s censorship to American college campuses.” The report concludes that unless the Institutes become “fully transparent” and the Chinese government reciprocates by welcoming the State Departments funded American Cultural Centers into China, “Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States.” 

Who cares, right? Bates College does not have a Confucius Institute. Sadly, however, some Chinese students at Bates are very careful not to express their political opinions publicly. One student at Bates told me that they “don’t do anything political. [They are] worried if there’ll be any consequences back home for [them] or [their] family.” This student is one of many Chinese students in universities across the country that consciously keep their opinions about their government under wraps. Dan Wang, a pro-democracy activist, elaborates on the methods that the Chinese government uses to silence critics in the U.S. in a piece for The New York Times. Another student at the University of Minnesota, Luo Daiqing, was arrested upon his return to China for posting “comment denigrating a national leader’s image and indecent pictures.” 

This is the reality that some Bates students deal with every day, in fact, two of the people I talked to prefer that I not even quote them out of fear that they might be subject to repercussions back home. Many schools don’t even need a brick and mortar Confucius Institute to silence government critics. The students that spoke with me are courageous individuals, and I especially want to offer thanks to the individual who gave me permission to quote them in my article. If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out the links to the previous paragraph about what it is students go through on some campuses, despite lacking an actual Confucius Institute. Authoritarianism takes many forms and in the age of technology can be extended to oppress individuals even beyond the borders of a single country.