Western Kentucky University (WKU) is located on a hill overlooking Bowling Green, a city in southern Kentucky with a population of 65,000. Last May, in a corner of the campus, a new building for the WKU Confucius Institute was completed.
It is a single-story brick building covering an area of 750 square meters next to a garden. The construction costs, which totaled USD3 million (about JPY310 million), was split between the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), which is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, and the university. Executives of the Confucius Institute headquarters in China attended the opening ceremony.
The building’s interior resembles a hotel lobby and is decorated with Chinese furniture and implements imported directly from Shanghai. It consists of four classrooms, which accommodate 20 to 30 people each, along with a system kitchen.
“We were selected as one of the top 15 role-model institutes out of 500 Confucius Institutes across the world,” boasts director Wei-Ping Pan.
The WKU Confucius Institute was established in 2010, and has since been steadily expanding its scope through the eager cooperation of the university, which aims to emphasize Chinese-language education in the region and receives ample Chinese funding from Hanban.
Expanding Presence in the Community
As part of the institute’s activities, Chinese language teachers are dispatched to local primary and secondary schools promoted by Hanban. In the first year, only 11 teachers were dispatched, while this year, they will send 52 teachers to 47 schools.
Terrill Martin, a staff member of the institute, said: “It costs about USD60,000 per year, including welfare benefits, to hire new teachers. However, the university only pays a quarter of the costs when hiring a teacher from the Confucius Institute. The program is popular for being low-cost and high-quality.”
The presence of the Confucius Institute in WKA is conspicuous, with a statue of Confucius and Terracotta Warriors on display and a Chinese Cultural Exhibition Center in the library building.
Growing Controversy in the U.S.
The United States hosts the greatest number of Confucius Institutes in the world — 110 in total. At the same time, there has been intense criticism and suspicion that the institute has become the Chinese government’s “propaganda institution.” The controversy has seeped its way into the political scene as well.
“China is going to become the most powerful and influential country in the world, taking over the United States using well-structured, long-term strategies.”
Republican senator Marco Rubio spoke out during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s public hearing on February 13, declaring that the institute is an “accomplice [of the Chinese government]” as it strives to provide biased history education and to form public opinion that is advantageous to China.
Christopher A. Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), agreed with the accusation: “We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes, and we are keeping a watchful eye.”
Wray also criticized China for using students and professors as intelligence agents, who exploit “the very open research institutes” in the U.S.
On March 21, Marco Rubio and other senators jointly submitted a bill aimed at strengthening surveillance by requiring organizations such as the Confucius Institute to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Distrust continues to grow as the Confucius Institute is accused of being a hub for spying activities and disseminating pro-China thought.
Pressure Grows to Terminate Agreements
On May 2 this year, Rubio called on five universities partnering with the Confucius Institute in his local Florida to terminate their agreements. The University of West Florida has revealed that they would not renew theirs.
In Texas, Democratic and Republican congressmen have also called for action, leading universities there to reconsider their relationship with the institute. Among them, Texas A&M University responded quickly and announced in April that they were terminating their agreement with the institute.
Various issues have emerged in the past, with rumors that political themes deemed taboo by the Chinese Communist Party were being purposely avoided. For this reason, the American Association of University Professors has advised universities to cut all ties with the Confucius Institute, describing it as a threat to “academic freedom.”
The University of Chicago decided in 2014 not to renew its agreement with the Confucius Institute due to differences over academic freedom and other reasons. While a few other universities have followed, the institute continues to assert itself in other American universities
China’s ‘Sharp Power’ Moves
Marshall Sahlins, an honorary professor at the University of Chicago, explains that the reduction of the university budget by state governments since 2000 and the increase of Chinese students are both important parts of the context.
“For universities that are struggling, the tuition fees that flow in from Chinese students are a valuable source of income. They don’t want to reject the Confucius Institute and anger the Chinese government.”
At the end of 2017, the American think tank National Endowment for Democracy (NED) called China’s aggressive strategies to shape public opinion “sharp power.” Professor Victor Mair, who opposed the establishment of a Confucius Institute at the University of Pennsylvania 10 years ago, believes that caution against “Chinese imperialism” has strengthened, and that the “situation continues to change as more politicians speak out.”
However, Mair also said, “China is absolutely determined to draw close to universities, and their ways are ingenious and formidable.”
Measures against the ever expanding influence of the Confucius Institute have only just begun.
This series was undertaken by The Sankei Shimbun reporters Takashi Arimoto, Nobuhiro Imanaka, Mayu Uetsuka, Makiko Takita, Yasuto Tanaka, Yoshinari Kurose and Hideo Miyashita.
Click here to read the original article in Japanese.