The University of South Carolina has continued to host a Chinese “propaganda” outpost on campus despite concerns from the FBI, education advocacy groups and top lawmakers.
The Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-run program that teaches Chinese language classes and hosts cultural events at USC and many other colleges, has come under fire for what critics say teaches a biased narrative of China and allows a foreign government to influence class curriculum.
“The Chinese government has essentially bought a piece of the curriculum for schools that have Confucius Institutes,” said Rachelle Peterson, policy director at the National Association of Scholars who produced a 187-page report on Confucius Institutes. “Colleges and universities have outsourced their classes to a foreign government.”
USC and the Beijing Language and Culture University established the Confucius Institute in 2008. The agreement establishing the institute places an official at the state-run Beijing school in charge of creating the curriculum and allows an arm of the Chinese government to provide course materials. The program’s budget must be approved by an arm of the Chinese government, according to the agreement.
Colleges typically accept the terms because it saves them money and provides them a pipeline of Chinese students who, unlike in-state students, pay full tuition, Peterson said. China sent 596 international students to USC in 2017, more than any other country, according to the university’s 2017 Demographic Report. That’s four times as much as India, which sent the second-most international students, 136, the report shows.
However, a USC spokesperson said the school retains complete control over the content of the classes.
“At USC, our faculty develops the syllabi, selects textbooks and has oversight over all curriculum,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email. “The only courses at USC taught by Confucius Institute staff are language courses. They do not teach culture, literature or film courses and are under the direct supervision of USC faculty.”
That’s not how the Chinese government sees these overseas institutes. Chinese Communist party official Li Changchun referred to Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set up,” according to a 2009 article in The Economist.
That wasn’t just an error in translation. A reporter from Politico dug up a 2010 People’s Daily article where Chinese propaganda minister Liu Yunshan was quoted saying, “With regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issuers such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong. … We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”
Less than 100 USC students are enrolled in classes taught by a Confucius Institute professor, Stensland said.
China has been successful in establishing Confucius Institutes. Worldwide, there is a Confucius Institute on 450 campuses, according to a 2015 count by University of Chicago Professor Marshall Sahlins.
The American Association of University Professors issued a statement in 2014 calling for universities to sever ties with Confucius Institutes on their campuses, saying the level of control the Chinese government has on these campuses damages “the integrity of the university and its academic staff.”
“Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities,” according to the statement.
USC is the only S.C. public college to have a Confucius Institute. Presbyterian College, a private school in Clinton, also has a Confucius Institute, according to the school’s website.
USC and the Beijing Language and Culture University both contributed $100,000 to start the institute, according to the original agreement. Currently, the Confucius Institute has a $400,000 budget, with USC providing at least 2,000 square feet of office space, paying one full-time professor, a secretary and two part-time postgraduate students, according to the agreement.
The original agreement also required the Chinese government to provide “3,000 volumes of books, audio-visual and multimedia materials.”
A reporter from The State went to view these materials, some of which are on display at Thomas Cooper Library. There were 38 DVDs and most had English translations on the case. While some of the movies had anodyne themes — lovers crossing social and cultural barriers to marry or the son of a farmer who traveled overseas wants to move to the city — others read like thinly veiled propaganda.
The synopsis for “Two Actresses” reads: “This movie reveals the miserable life and sufferings of two actresses of the Yue Opera in the old society and their liberation and renaissance in the new China.”
Others, such as “The Red Detachment of Women;” “The Battle on Shangganling Mountain;” “Song of Youth;” “The Great Turning: The Fierce Battle in Southwest Shandong;” and “One and Eight” glorify China’s historical military triumphs and the values of the Communist Party.
“It’s important to remember that while the library is a repository for all kinds of materials, that in no way means that the university endorses the ideas contained in every book, journal article or film housed there,” Stensland said. “Materials, even controversial ones, are made publicly accessible for scholarly and historical purposes. If we only included officially endorsed materials, that would run contrary to the free and open inquiry that institutions of higher learning are designed to promote.”
The Chinese government gifted these movies to USC in 2009. The collection “represents what Chinese officials thought the people of the United States should see and know about China,” according to a fact sheet provided by USC libraries.
Notably missing from the movies on communism and the Cultural Revolution was any mention of Mao Zedong’s appalling human rights record, which included torturing and executing intellectuals and killing more of his own people than Adolf Hitler.
When a reporter from The State called and emailed professors who work at the institute to ask whether they had ever felt a need to self-censor, only one spoke to a reporter, but declined to answer questions or be interviewed. Others who answered emails referred The State to USC’s legal department, a spokesman or to the institute’s director, Tan Ye, whose office did not return calls seeking comment.
Confucius Institutes have long been criticized for painting an overly rosy portrait of Chinese history, Peterson said. But the criticism came to a head in February when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray about the institutes during a Senate hearing.
“It is my view that they’re complicit in these 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,” Rubio said, according to a CNN transcript of the hearing.
Wray said he agreed with Rubio’s assessment of Confucius Institutes and added the bureau had taken “appropriate investigative steps” against Confucius Institutes regarding those same concerns. He did not elaborate on what those “investigative steps” were.
After Rubio sent a letter to Florida colleges urging them to end their Confucius Institutes, the University of North Florida announced it would be closing its Confucius Institute, saying the vision of the university and that of the institute did not match up.
This year, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sponsored language in a defense spending bill that blocks colleges from receiving money from the Pentagon if they have a Confucius Institute open on their campus. USC has never lost nor been denied funding because of its relationship with the Confucius Institute, Stensland said.
“We are aware that some institutions have decided to end their affiliation with the Institute, but cannot speak to the specific reasons why or what the nature of those individual partnerships may have been,” Stensland said. “USC has enjoyed a 10-year partnership with the Confucius Institute, and by all accounts, it’s been a positive one for our students, faculty and staff.”