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The State Department labeled China’s Confucius programs a bad influence on U.S. students. What’s the story?

Concerns over the ideological threat of these programs may be overblown

- August 24, 2020

The State Department in mid-August designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS) as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese government and called out the organization for its role as “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms.”

What does this mean for the D.C.-based CIUS, the de facto headquarters for a network of 75 Confucius Institutes and several hundred “Confucius Classrooms” across the United States? The CIUS now will have to report regularly to the U.S. government on its activities and provide greater transparency about People’s Republic of China “citizen personnel, recruiting, funding, and operations in the United States.”

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The State Department’s announcement reflects a long-standing national conversation about Chinese-government-sponsored Confucius Institute activities in the United States. What are these programs, and what do they teach? My research looks at how American students respond to Chinese-language learning in Confucius Classrooms within the greater context of global education curriculums at U.S. high schools.

What are Confucius Institutes and Classrooms?

Confucius Institutes are Chinese-language and cultural centers funded by grants from China — more than 1,000 have been established around the world, usually on university campuses. These institutes also work with local K-12 schools to open Confucius Classrooms, which offer programs for younger students. Until recently, the Hanban — a Chinese government office under the Education Ministry, with links to the Chinese Communist Party’s external propaganda arms — oversaw these programs. However, in June, China created a new nongovernmental organization to manage the Confucius programs.

Analysts and politicians have questioned the potential influence of Confucius programming over American students. In a 2018 column, for instance, Josh Rogin condemned Confucius Institutes as threatening “the ability of the next generation of American leaders to learn, think and speak about realities in China and the true nature of the Communist Party regime.” His column quoted a warning from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that the goal of Confucius Institutes is to “instill in the minds of future leaders a pro-China viewpoint.”

Other critics dislike that these programs omit issues the Chinese Communist Party considers to be politically sensitive, such as political freedoms in Tibet and Xinjiang or the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. On this point, according to empirical analyses of their curriculums and anecdotes about teacher behavior, Confucius Institutes avoid teaching about political content altogether.

Critics have also worried about the constraints that Confucius Institutes impose on academic freedom. In 2009, North Carolina State University disinvited the Dalai Lama after its Confucius Institute objected to inviting the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile.

Because each university negotiates its own contract, specific rules governing the relationship between the host institution and the funding organization are highly individualized. Congressional officials have expressed concern about the lack of transparency around hiring practices and contractual details of Confucius Institutes — though the State Department’s new reporting requirements may begin to address this issue.

Lawmakers such as Rubio and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have pressured U.S. universities to close their institutes and passed legislation to encourage this. In recent years, 45 Confucius Institutes in the United States have closed down. Just this month, Emory University announced plans to close its Confucius Institute. Institutes on other campuses, meanwhile, have come under greater scrutiny.

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What do U.S. students really learn?

During the 2019-2020 school year, I tracked the views of nearly 1,300 students at two U.S. high schools with Confucius Classrooms via three in-school survey rounds, in September 2019, December 2019 and May 2020. Both high schools treated their Chinese courses as part of the regular foreign-language program — some students studied Chinese in the Confucius Classrooms, while others studied languages such as Spanish, French and Russian through the high schools.

The surveys assessed student feelings toward and knowledge about several countries. Through a professional survey firm, I ran nationwide online surveys of 1,000 teens ages 12 to 18 alongside each of the in-school surveys, and I also ran online adult surveys of 500 respondents during the September and May survey periods.

These are the survey results

The combined results suggest that Confucius Classrooms at these two schools did not produce the “pro-China” viewpoints that critics such as Rubio warned about. Regardless of whether students at these schools were taking Confucius Classroom classes, on average, they developed less favorable views of China over the academic year.

One thought, of course, is that these results reflect reactions to the coronavirus pandemic and negative news reports about the virus originating in China. However, the December 2019 surveys indicate that this is not the full story. By the end of the fall semester, teens at the two schools had already showed a significant decrease in favorable views toward China, well before the pandemic hit the United States — and even before reports emerged of the novel coronavirus in China. (In comparison, the national sample of teens did not show a statistically significant negative trend in views until the spring semester.)

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Even though the content of their Chinese classes was not overtly political, students at the schools in my study learned about current events in other classes or by following the news. One student told me that if he could go to any place in the world, he would travel to Hong Kong, adding that the protests there had piqued his interest. Another student — an avid National Basketball Association fan — learned about Chinese government politics after the Houston Rockets’ general manager was chastised by the Chinese government for a tweet in October 2019.

Nevertheless, in an open-ended question from the May surveys, many students in the Confucius Classrooms praised Chinese culture. These views were probably aided by popular activities such as making scallion pancakes and singing Chinese pop songs at the schools.

My findings suggest that American students — even young high-schoolers — are discerning and able to process conflicting signals in the learning environment. Students studying Chinese in Confucius Classrooms will probably remain curious about China-relevant topics outside their language classes, too. For this reason, it is unlikely that they are being indoctrinated by the Chinese Communist Party.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Naima Green-Riley (@naimagreenriley) is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government focusing on public diplomacy and Chinese foreign policy.