Most students would be forgiven for not knowing about GW’s Confucius Institute, a chapter of a worldwide organization promoting the study of Chinese culture and language in universities. It may seem an innocuous cultural organization, but Confucius Institutes at GW and across the country are nothing less than soft power tools of the Chinese Communist Party.
These Institutes are operated by Hanban, a government entity funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education, and hire employees largely based on their loyalty to the CCP. Topics of discussion forbidden by the Chinese government are forbidden as well at their events. The Institutes regularly sabotage events related to critical topics about China, pressuring universities to disinvite the Dalai Lama or removing conference materials listing Taiwan as a country. Confucius Institutes have also allegedly carried out espionage, assisted in the theft of intellectual property and threatened Chinese students for what they may say in the classroom.
Universities are aware of these issues, and some schools across the United States and abroad have subsequently shuttered their Institutes in the past two years. Of GW’s 12 peer schools, only Tufts University and the University of Pittsburgh still allow branches. More tellingly, Congress and the FBI reviewed the activities of Confucius Institutes last year, identifying them as threats to campus free speech and information security and urging U.S. universities to sever ties. Several faculty associations, human rights groups and student organizations have likewise called for their closure. The University must consider these warnings and shutter the GW Confucius Institute as soon as possible.
Confucius Institutes are not like cultural Institutes like France’s Alliance Francaise or Germany’s Goethe-Institute because they, unlike others, operate as fixtures on the campuses of their host universities. They have a voice in what events or discussions take place on campus, which is particularly concerning given the Chinese government’s track record of speech policing. A Chinese official even admitted in 2011 that the Institutes were an “important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” It is reasonable to assume GW’s Institute is part of this broader mission and effort to censor discussion and surveil at universities nationwide.
Allowing the Chinese government space on campus to communicate its policies is controversial enough. Permitting it to stifle the communications of others is intolerable. When one then takes into account the national security concerns, the course of action required by the University becomes all too obvious.
We should also consider the funds GW allocates toward the Institute. Congress passed a law in 2018 withholding all Department of Defense language funding from universities that host an Institute. We are possibly forfeiting critical language resources – at a time when our language departments have needed to cut classes – all so we can give an authoritarian government a platform on campus. The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused financial harm to the University, and while closing the Institute won’t balance the budget by any means, it could be a beneficial way to start.
The need to learn Chinese or gain familiarity with Chinese culture is undoubtedly present, especially at a university renowned for its international affairs program. But there are plenty of ways to do so without allowing the Chinese government to manipulate discourse on campus. Just ask American or Georgetown universities or any of the Ivy League schools, which have avoided hosting Confucius Institutes and still maintain top-notch programs in Chinese language and politics. All our Confucius Institute really does for students is organize language classes and art events. We already have a Chinese language department, and it’s not worth keeping the Institute for the sake of a few calligraphy lessons or ballet performances.
To operate legitimately, any foreign organization should ensure a commitment to freedom of speech, transparency and integrity of academic practices. The University as much as any other school must make it clear that our values of freedom and democracy are not for sale. GW’s insistence on keeping the Institute open not only defies rationality but violates our character as an institution.
Filip Vachuda, a rising junior majoring in international affairs and economics, is a writer.
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