Washington, D.C. – Today, Foreign Policy’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian detailed a recent visit to Savannah State University where the Confucius Institute head censored mentions of Taiwan in the author’s bio and reprimanded Allen-Ebrahimian for criticizing the Chinese government and failing to give “students a good impression of China,” underscoring U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s continued concern about these Chinese government-run institutes operating in American academic institutions.
Just today, Rubio challenged three Florida universities that have agreements with Chinese government-run Confucius Institutes to hold open discussions on topics sensitive to the Chinese government.
How China Managed to Play Censor at a Conference on U.S. Soil
By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
May 9, 2018
Taiwan was scrubbed from my biography.
I’d been invited to give a keynote speech and accept an award at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In a description of my background, I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported. But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed.
The department had given the award annually since 1975. But in the past few years, finances had dwindled and organizers struggled to find the resources to cover the expenses of bringing in a speaker from out of town.
Enter the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated organization that teaches Chinese language and culture and sponsors educational exchanges, with more than 500 branches around the globe. The branch at Savannah State, founded four years ago, agreed to sponsor the speech.
On campuses across the United States, funding gaps are leaving departments with little choice but to turn to those groups with the deepest pockets — and China is keen to offer money, especially through its global network of Confucius Institutes. But when academic work touches on issues the Chinese Communist Party dislikes, things can get dicey.
When the event ended, Luo came over to scold me. Speaking in Chinese, she asked why I had criticized China. I should have given students a good impression of China, she said. Didn’t I know that Xi had done so much for the country, that his anti-corruption campaign was working?
“You don’t know the situation now,” she told me. “Things have gotten better.”
And so, schools like Savannah State must walk a fine line. “Often the American co-director is interested in supporting academic freedom and trying to manage the Confucius Institute in a way that is constructive,” says Peterson. Each Confucius Institute has two co-directors, one American and one Chinese. But that’s “really hard to do. And in some cases, well near impossible.”
Some U.S. lawmakers are now trying to make that balancing act easier. The Foreign Influence Transparency Act, introduced this year by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, would require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents, which would force the institutes to disclose their funding and activities to the Justice Department. The bill would also require universities to disclose foreign funding in any amount over $50,000.