Closing the Confucius Institute but not the RSC sets a double standard

Following years of external pressure, fueled by the rising tide of neo-Cold War and anti-China rhetoric in the United States, administrators decided to close the University’s branch of the Confucius Institute. The Confucius Institute is a cultural institute, which operates branches at more than 500 schools worldwide that promote Chinese language and cultural events. Since the establishment of the first Confucius Institute in the United States in 2004, the institution has been under scrutiny for its potential threat to academic freedom as a result of it being previously funded by the Chinese government. Not only have administrators failed to publicly provide evidence that GW’s Confucius Institute specifically transgressed academic freedom, but the timing of the closure, following legislation passed by the U.S. Senate in 2021 barring the Department of Defense from funding universities with Confucius Institutes, suggests it was done to protect University funding from the U.S. military.

On the other hand, the University has continually reaffirmed its support of the Regulatory Studies Center, a research center at GW that receives millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry and is equally, if not more, guilty of transgressing academic freedom for its role in propagating climate denial that serves the interests of its funders. It is possible that administrators have reasons beyond the forfeiture of military funding to close the Confucius Institute. But, if this is the case, administrators must justify their continued support of the RSC as it appears to be transgressing academic freedom just as seriously as the Confucius Institute was accused of doing.

The way administrators are seemingly applying a double-standard treatment of these two University centers raises important questions about the transparency of administrative research funding decisions, the politicization of University research choices and the protection of academic freedom. If administrators hope to maintain any claim to objective governance or transparency, they must close the RSC for the center’s own subversion of academic freedom and provide the GW community with an evidence-based rationale for the Confucius Institute’s closure.

Increased criticism of Confucius Institutes from Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and others, follows increasing tension in the global politics arena regarding the U.S.’s efforts to subvert China’s international political power. Reminiscent of witch-hunting in Salem, scholars have been criminalized for merely having affiliations with China as apparently unsubstantiated allegations of Chinese spying proliferate. Jennifer Hubbert, the author of an empirical study of Confucius Institutes published in 2020 by the University of Hawaii Press, helps us understand Confucius Institutes as a product of relationships between individuals and countries and as “spaces of engagement and exchange, where soft power is produced and challenged through the globalization of the Chinese language.”

As a result, Confucius Institutes, although certainly not exclusively Confucius Institutes, are settings for empirical observation through which research, informed by different relationships of political power, is produced and controlled for consumption – whether that be China producing politically favorable knowledge or the U.S. producing it. Instead of asking whether the Confucius Institute is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we should ask, in the context of globalization, how do we believe superpowers should conduct themselves with regard to their promotion and economic subsidization of University research projects?

While administrators have failed to comment on the reason for the closure of the Confucius Institute, the timeline closely follows that of other universities who have closed their Confucius Institutes following legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas in 2018, barring the Department of Defense from providing federal research funding to universities that host Confucius Institutes. A renewal of this legislation passed in 2021 blocks all federal education funding to universities deemed to not have “full operational control” over their Confucius Institutes.

According to a 2015 Vice News report, which ranks GW as the fourth “most militarized” school in the country, measured by ranking which schools have the “closest relationships with the national security state” and profits the most from American wars, GW could have a lot of defense money to be afraid of losing. Keeping the Confucius Institute open and having this funding restricted would also be especially detrimental to University administrators who advocate for austerity budget cuts and layoffs over choosing to tap into the University’s endowment to balance the budget. While the rationale for the closure is still unknown, GW’s decision to close the Confucius Institute, if it was done to protect military funding, would be a form of economically motivated knowledge production in its own right outside of the standards of academic inquiry.

Compared to the Confucius Institute, the case for abolishing the RSC is backed by similar – I believe more – compelling evidence. First, the RSC receives more outside funding than the Confucius Institute used to. Since 2013, the Confucius Institute has received $3.4 million from the Chinese government. Over that same period, the RSC has received a combined total of $5.1 million from Koch, ExxonMobil and Searle Freedom Trust – all three of these funders have been identified as among the most influential organizations in the climate change countermovement. In fact, all of the money Charles Koch gives to the RSC puts GW in the top ten of colleges accepting Koch money. This is especially troubling given Koch Industries’ role in subverting academic freedom at college campuses across the country, including, demonstrably, at GW.

As long as the University continues to apply undisclosed standards of acceptable academic research funding, the University cannot claim that the Confucius Institute was closed due to concerns about academic freedom alone. It is time administrators lift their veil of non-disclosure and transparently provide the student body with their rationale for the closure of the Confucius Institute. And if the University purports to have a true interest in academic freedom, it needs to justify its support of the RSC. But if it can’t, then the University should close the RSC under the same precedent.

Karina Ochoa Berkley, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions columnist and the assistant copy editor.

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