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China Plants Flag in Norman

June 1, 2017 - 1:56pm CDT

Why is the University of Oklahoma advancing the interests of one of America’s global adversaries? OU should close its Confucius Institute as soon as possible.

By Mike Brake

If you want to take a course in Chinese at the University of Oklahoma, or study Chinese culture, there’s a chance you’ll be instructed not by an OU faculty member but by an employee of a shadowy agency of the Chinese government which Li Chanchun, a senior Beijing official, once called “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

And if you dare to ask about Tiananmen Square, where the oppressive Chinese government once ran over dissidents with tanks, you’ll likely be told it sure has interesting architecture!

OU is one of 103 American colleges and universities (and 500-plus high schools) that host Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are little more than colleges within colleges funded, staffed, and in large measure managed by agents of the Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is in turn part of China's Ministry of Education.

If that sounds like a case of giving the fox free run of the henhouse, it is.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently published a detailed report on Confucius Institutes titled “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education,” by Rachelle Peterson. The report, the product of extensive investigations into CIs on a dozen American campuses, contains some startling revelations:

  • The agreements between most CIs and their host universities are secret as to funding sources and rules of operation, though most seem to include provisions that classes within the CIs must be conducted under Chinese “speech codes.”
  • Staffing is largely by visiting professors from the school’s linked Chinese university, and in many cases the textbooks to be used are printed in China. Most reflect the Chinese government’s official lines, including that Taiwan and Tibet are parts of China.
  • CIs have successfully pressured some universities to disinvite speakers who might be critical of Chinese policy. At North Carolina State University, for example, school officials cancelled a 2009 speech by the Dalai Lama when the director of the resident CI objected.
  • There are disturbing suggestions that CIs conduct surveillance of Chinese students studying in America. If they thought they were getting away from the oppression at home while earning a degree here, those on campuses with CIs might be disappointed. This is not a small matter; the NAS report notes that there are almost 330,000 Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities, almost a third of all foreign students.

The NAS investigator ran into repeated stone walls when she asked to see copies of CI/university agreements. Only one showed a draft copy, then refused to display the final signed document. Most CI directors declined to meet with her at all, and on one campus the provost (not a CI employee) ordered her off campus, never to return. At another she succeeded in asking several CI faculty members what they would say if asked about Tiananmen Square.

“Several replied that they would talk about the Square’s historic architecture,” the report said.

Yes, and Dachau is a nice little town in Germany.

What do these people have to hide? It may be simply embarrassing to many higher education administrators to admit that they have handed over a segment of their student bodies to be instructed and propagandized by agents of a hostile foreign power.

“The American colleges and universities that sign up are naïve,” the NAS report said, “and they are generally indifferent to the consequences. What motivates the college administrators who accept these invitations is a combination of greed and vanity. The Hanban knows exactly how to play the contemporary American college president and his staff.”

Though not all of them. In 2014, 100 University of Chicago faculty members successfully forced the CI off campus over what their petition called the “dubious practice of allowing an external institution to staff academic courses within the university.”

At OU the CI has its own webpage, which shows that it has established satellite CIs at 46 or more public schools around the state. In addition to Chinese language, CI enrollees can take courses in “Chinese culture” and “acupressure,” the latter instructed by a professor from OU’s partner Beijing Normal University who is also qualified to teach “sword fighting and spear fighting.”

While most Americans accept the need to maintain relations with China, the truth remains that the regime there is still a closed, oppressive one which has brutally occupied Tibet for generations and conducted frequent suppressions of dissent. To draw a not-unreasonable parallel, what would OU patrons have thought in 1938 if their administration invited an agency of the Nazi government in Germany to come over and set up courses in German language and culture, taught by people wearing swastikas?

The NAS report offers a number of urgent recommendations, first among them the expulsion of CIs from all American schools and campuses. Failing that, they urge reforms that would include:

  • Open transparency of Hanban/university agreements, including financial data and management.
  • Establishing separate budgets for CIs from their host universities.
  • Assigning university faculty members, not Hanban employees, to teach Chinese language courses.
  • Assuring academic freedom by removing barriers to classroom discussions, especially on subjects where CI faculty members appear to be parroting the communist line.
  • Settling any disputes in U.S., not Chinese, courts.
  • Making CI directors volunteers, not paid Hanban employees.

Because of the closed-door secrecy that NAS encountered, it is not possible to know how often students in CI classes are subjected to communist propaganda, or what other nefarious activities CIs conceal. What is certain is that there is no comparable institution associated with the American system of higher education.

The NAS report also calls for congressional and state legislative investigations of Hanban influence on American campuses through the 100-plus CIs already in place. Hopefully Oklahoma legislators will begin asking some pointed questions of the OU administration as well.

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.